Editorial: Record education investments need to provide real results

It’s time for new Education Secretary Arsenio Romero to make his mark.

The fourth Public Education Department appointee of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in four-plus years says he now has resources and tools necessary to turn around the state’s public education system. We can only hope he helps ensure the coming record-setting investments pay off.

This year’s PED appropriation of $4.17 billion-with-a-“b” in recurring funds, almost 44% of the state’s total budget, is roughly a $300 million increase from last year as state lawmakers and the governor try to spend their way up from the bottom of state public education rankings.

It’s a tried if as-yet unproven strategy, one that a state court ruling in 2018 determined has still left the state unable to meet its constitutional duty of providing a quality education for all children, particularly those who are low-income, Native American, English-language learners or have disabilities.

“As a person that has been in public education for my entire career, this is the most that (we’ve) ever spent on students,” Romero told the Journal. “This is going to allow us to have the resources, the professional development, the tools necessary across our state to be able to tackle some of the issues that we know are there.”

That’s good to hear and will be better to actually see. Considering the condition of many of our school buildings, shortage of certified and specialized educators, and chronic lack of connectivity, it promises to be a heavy lift despite the overflowing coffers.

• There are raises. Almost $170 million is set aside for all school workers to get an average 6% raise, on top of 7% raises last year. About a year ago the governor signed a bill increasing starting teacher pay statewide from $40,000 to $50,000 per year.

Lawmakers this year also appropriated $14.5 million to raise the minimum salaries of educational assistants to $25,000 from $12,000. EAs are the under-appreciated people who help make our classrooms run; it’s good to see them recognized where it counts — in their pocketbooks.

Lawmakers also prudently appropriated $8 million to increase the minimum salary levels of principals by $3,500. Anyone who works in our schools knows a great principal can make a campus, a poor one can tank it. Enhancing principal pay was on Think New Mexico’s Ten-Point Plan for Rethinking Public Education in New Mexico.

• There is money for more class time. House Bill 130 requires at least 1,140 instructional hours in school per year, up from 990 hours for first- through sixth-graders and 1,080 for secondary students. Lawmakers appropriated $202 million to pay for the increased class time and over $50 million for schools to extend their calendar beyond 180 days.

• And there is money to help rectify shortcomings pointed out in the landmark Yazzie-Martinez ruling, $20 million for the Indian Education Fund. It’s a roughly $5 million increase from last fiscal year to work with pueblos to improve internet access, recruit teachers and make sure they have the instructional materials they need.

PED officials would be wise to familiarize themselves with Think New Mexico’s plan, which looks at best practices and how states like Mississippi have pulled their student proficiencies up from the K-12 basement. Quality education isn’t just a matter of funding. If that were the case, New Mexico would be closer to the middle of the pack given that in fiscal 2020 our per pupil spending of $11,332 ranked us 36th in the nation, according to census.gov.

We hope Romero is correct that the state has the tools and resources it needs to make a real difference in each New Mexico child’s education — it certainly has the cash. It’s going to be up to Romero, his PED, local school districts and individual classrooms to deliver a better return on these historic taxpayer investments with specific programs and services and a transparent accounting of them all.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.