Legislature / News / Politics

Roundhouse 2013: Above and Below the Battle Line

By Eric J. Garcia

By Eric J. Garcia

By Margaret Wright

— The legislative session has been a tug-of-war between the Public Education Department and local districts, many of them represented by Democratic lawmakers — and all trying to gain traction during the division of a $2.5 billion pot of public school money.

Controversy over funding illustrates the struggle the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez faces as it pursues major changes to education. Public schools consume about 43 percent of the entire state budget, and both sides of the education debate say their opponents’ approach to improving outcomes simply isn’t working.

A Matter of Equity — and Reform

During a Monday, Feb. 4 joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees, reps from school districts and teachers’ organizations asked government officials to favor above-the-line funding and limit the amount of money directed below the line.

Above-the-line funding gets filtered to more than 300,000 students through a formula established in the 1970s. It was designed to distribute money equally among school districts, which are allowed to use their share as they see fit, as long as the state approves.

Money placed below the line, on the other hand, gets set aside for specific initiatives. The governor’s New Mexico Graduates Now! program, for example, includes the establishment of four to five new early college high schools and an early-warning system to help students at risk of dropping out.

Tom Sullivan, interim superintendent of Mora Independent Schools, said at the meeting that with $20 million more placed below the line in the Education Department’s initial budget proposal, “rural schools are going to see programs decimated.” He added: “We’ve lived with below-the-line funding for years — but always after above-the-line funding was addressed.”

Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton (D-Albuquerque) criticized Education Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera directly. “It’s like you’re making a determination of what a school has and doesn’t have based on competitiveness when money is below lethe line,” said Williams Stapleton.

Skandera’s office says special initiatives are key to making sure taxpayer investments in education get measurable results. According to the PED’s 2013 legislative initiatives summary, below-the-line funding “makes any education reform accountable because educators and policy makers are able to attach clear goals and expectations.”

In contrast, the summary argues, money above the line gets “invested in the status quo, with less accountability.”

Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque teachers’ union, said an emphasis on below-the-line money strains district resources and goes against the state’s longstanding commitment to fair distribution.

Teachers have had to cope with four years of spending cuts and losing more than 10 percent of education funding, she added. They’re dealing with larger class sizes and being forced to do more with less. “Teachers are demoralized by the constant shame and blame our culture places on them,” Bernstein said.

The budget passed by the House on Feb. 21, said Bernstein, prioritizes the governor’s reforms over immediate needs of school districts.

Larry Behrens, Education Department spokesman, said via email that below-the-line funding in the governor’s recommendations represents only about 1.25 percent of the total state budget and less than 3 percent of public education funding. “It’s difficult to understand how anyone can characterize it as excessive.”

Furthermore, said Behrens, from 2002 to 2008, “The taxpayer above-the-line commitment to education grew by $740 million dollars with little or no improvement in student achievement.”

Behrens said the PED is already committed to working with district leaders to build flexibility into the governor’s below-the-line projects. “That’s how we were able to get support from superintendents for our reading initiative investments and funding to recruit and reward excellent teachers, both below the line,” he said.

Stymied Efforts

Democratic legislators have already scaled back several of the governor’s goals. The House shaved $2 million off her $13 million budget request for early reading interventions, and her $4.7 million recommendation for struggling schools was cut to $4 million.

On Saturday, Feb. 24, Democrats in the Senate Education Committee killed Education Department-backed legislation requiring grade retention for third graders who can’t read proficiently. Democrats’ substitute measures don’t have dedicated funding and bipartisan support, said Behrens, whereas his department’s bill included a common assessment for all districts. That’s crucial, he said, because New Mexico students move frequently.

Behrens called the Senate committee move a “temporary setback that only hurts our children.”

* This article originally appeared on Page 5  of Local iQ. Look for Compass reports there in every edition through the end of the legislative session.

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