New Mexico education spending plan focuses on student equity

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Public Education Department on Wednesday proposed a new formula for funding schools with high numbers of low-income students as the agency looks to fund efforts aimed at helping students who are falling behind due to the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Education Secretary Ryan Stewart told a panel of lawmakers that the $3.3 billion budget request includes a package for post-pandemic student recovery and a mechanism for schools to be “held harmless” for drops in enrollment this year that would affect per-pupil funding next year.

“Equity is at the heart of this budget request,” Stewart in a statement ahead of his presentation to the Legislative Finance Committee. “We’re getting additional money to the kids who need it most while giving districts the flexibility to determine at a local level what their students need.”

The Public Education Department is under pressure to provide more support for low-income school districts after a judge ruled in 2018 that the state is failing its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education for children, particularly to Native Americans, English language learners and low-income students.

One plan to address the inequities involved adding more school days, but millions of dollars went unspent after schools declined to sign up for the program, particularly during the pandemic.

Stewart said $56 million of that funding could be reallocated to the schools serving the poorest students. He proposed a more precise formula to allocate that money that would be calculated using household income data gleaned from tax forms and combining it with Census information.

“It would direct funding to approximately those third of students who have the lowest incomes in the state and provide additional resources to schools who are serving a disproportionate number of those students,” Stewart said.

The overall budget request for the fiscal year beginning in July asks for a post-pandemic service fund of $95 million. The idea is to get students back on their feet through counseling, tutoring and work experience programs following what is expected to be more than a year of online learning.

While a small number of students have benefitted from learning at home, many students have failed to attend classes and turn in assignments. An increasing percentage of students are failing at least one class this year, according to state data.

Education officials have warned for months that they’re seeing a 4% drop in student enrollment, a key metric that determines school funding for the following year. They fear a wave of students who left the public school system this year will be back next year leading to an unfunded increase in enrollment.

Stewart urged legislators to allow districts flexibility in estimating possible increases in enrollment for budgeting purposes in the 2021 fall semester.

Legislators pointed out that schools have been losing students for years before the pandemic, due in part to a decline in birth rates.

“We’ve seen a natural decline of almost 1.5% anyway,” Democratic Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup said, noting that it would be unrealistic to make assumptions about next year’s headcount.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

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