The 2018 Legislative session has begun and the K-12 education budget will make up about 44% of the entire New Mexico budget. There are two competing education budgets that are being considered, one by the Public Education Department (PED) and the other by the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC). While both proposals would spend approximately the same total dollars on education, about $2.76 billion, there are some significant differences and both are lacking some of the priorities of teachers, principals, superintendents, or the Legislative Education Study Committee.
This year will see an increase of between $51-$73 million in the dollars allocated to education after the declines the last few years. This is good news for students and the teachers and schools who support them. However, there is tremendous need in New Mexico classrooms and both bills lack sufficient funding to meet those needs. For more than a decade we have underfunded education by more than $300,000,000 to meet the sufficiency requirement in New Mexico’s Constitution. There is a pending judge’s decision in this matter after several lawsuits have been filed.
The PED proposal would raise teacher salaries by about 2% and other school employees by 1%. The LFC proposal would raise all salaries by about 1.5%. These represent increases of about $30 million and $16 million respectively. The largest differences in the two funding proposals come in what is often referred to as “below the line” funding. This is the money that is under the per view of the PED. The PED budget increases this funding by over 12% compared to last year while the LFC budget raises “below the line” funding by over 2%.
One of the largest increases in the PED budget comes in the form of about $7,000,000 in a teacher “merit” pay scheme and would only be available to about 4% of teachers and virtually no special education teachers. This increase was not mentioned by Secretary Designate Ruskowski in his recent op-ed in the Las Cruces Sun News under the headline “NM Education Budget is Balanced.” I have looked for research that shows improved student performance when teachers get “merit” pay. Most research shows no positive effect. I asked for relevant research from the Secretary Designate and was directed to a recent study. This research showed very small gains in student performance and only after three years. It also had 70% of teachers receiving the increases which makes it a pay increase for teachers, not merit pay for 4% as proposed in New Mexico. It is a merit pay scheme not a way to improve student performance.
Neither the PED proposed budget not the LFC proposal deals with the primary request from the superintendent and principal groups to restore the cash balances that were swept from districts in the budget crisis last year. This would cost about $40 million to make districts whole again. Neither proposal increases funding for career education, a priority of many members on the Legislative Education Study Committee. Neither proposal fully funds the transportation needs of the districts that must take money out of the classrooms in order to fund school busses. And neither proposal fully funds the textbook needs of the schools leaving students without a textbook for learning. Many of the education advocates would like a greater voice in deciding the education priorities of the budget.
Public schools in New Mexico need resources and it is the responsibility of the Legislature to provide those resources. Locally elected school boards and the districts they represent best know how to allocate those resources to provide for the children in the local schools. Increased funding for education should be given to the districts and not used for “merit pay” schemes or “pet” projects. Our children’s futures and the future of New Mexico are too valuable to be an experiment on how to save money. New Mexico’s teachers are professionals and put our children first. We need to give them the resources to do their jobs.