Budget requests by state agencies for the 60-day legislative session are in, and the biggest was saved for last on Thursday.
Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus was the final boss to make his department’s pitch to the Legislative Finance Committee ahead of the 60-day session starting Jan. 17.
The Public Education Department accounts for 45% of the state budget, more than $3.8 billion this year alone.
On top of that, the department manages more than $1.6 billion in American Rescue Plan money that school districts can tap until February 2024, Steinhaus said.
For the next fiscal year, lawmakers were asked to increase the appropriation by at least 6.3%, which would total more than $4.3 billion from the state’s General Fund for public schools in New Mexico. In addition, PED is asking for more than $638 million to spend from other state funds and federal money.
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And that money can go a long way toward fixing the multiple issues that need to be addressed.
To name a few, New Mexico’s test scores in math and reading are the worst in the nation. Graduation rates are flatlining at 77%, below the national average of 85%. Students are missing more school, too: chronic absenteeism rates are nearly 40% this year, according to the PED.
“Those are very alarming trends,” LFC analyst Suny Liu told lawmakers.
Plus, the state is embroiled in three different lawsuits that involve court mandates about how and where public schools money should be spent.
As Liu pointed out, the financial investment from the Legislature is substantial. Since the Yazzie-Martinez ruling in 2018, the state has appropriated more than $1 billion to public schools “to increase teacher pay, provide more funding for at-risk students, and one of the most expensive initiatives is extending the school year.”
Extending the school year is what got lawmakers excited.
“I’m very happy to hear that as well as all the extended learning time, I’m very happy to hear that,” said Legislative Finance Committee Chair Patty Lundstrum (D-Gallup) said when she learned the request includes a longer school year for all public school students.
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Liu said more than half of New Mexico students are currently enrolled in K-5 Plus, a program that gives elementary school students more days in the classroom.
Although there are still concerns about how that program is being implemented differently by each school district, PED is proposing lawmakers fund extended learning for all grade levels.
Under their budget proposal, public schools would need an additional $261.1 million to create a K-12 Plus program. They are also asking for $50 million for enhanced extended learning, $33.1 million specifically for students in special education or gifted learning programs and an additional $10 million to tutor more than 5,000 students.
Steinhaus, who gave the news that he’ll stay with PED, “as long as the governor will have me,” also announced a new tutoring program that will offer three sessions per week for any student attending a Title 1 school. New Mexico has 875 public schools, and 710 qualify as a Title 1 school because at least 50% of their students are members of families with low incomes.
Teachers were another area of concern for lawmakers. Steinhaus boasted about the progress the state is making to decrease its teacher shortage, which stands at 690 vacant positions, down from 1,048 last year.
He said more than 4,000 teacher licenses have been issued by PED since January. However it’s unclear at this time how many are for substitute teachers or are people transitioning to a full-time position.
“We’ve got to build a budget that will deliver a better outcome of getting those licensed people in the classroom,” Steinhaus said.
To reach the goals of boosting student achievement, hiring more teachers and meeting the court mandates, he said local school districts will play a significant role.
“We’re going to take the heat first,” he said. ‘We’re going to deliver on the outcomes, and then we’re going to expect the school districts to deliver on those outcomes as well.”
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