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Bill to shift federal education funding pits urban schools against tribes

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BY ROBERT NOTT
The New Mexican

Two state senators who represent rural districts hope to topple a long-standing system that uses the lion’s share of a federal grant program to help fund urban schools.

Operational money from the grants initially goes to 25 school districts and five charter schools. But then the state shortchanges these needy districts, said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who called what happens “a shell game.”

That’s because the districts and schools selected to receive money from the Impact Aid program only get a quarter of the overall annual grant, which topped $78 million last year.

The state redirects the rest of the money to other school districts through New Mexico’s per-student funding formula. Muñoz and Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, want to change that.

They say redistributing the grant money to other school districts isn’t fair to hard-pressed schools and undermines the intent of the program.

Muñoz and Sanchez spoke with trembling emotion of children in their districts who do not have running water at home, whose school buildings and athletic fields are in disrepair and whose teachers live 100 miles away from the closest community. These teachers sacrifice material and comfort goods to serve their students, the senators said.

They have introduced Senate Bill 170, which in stages would remove the federal grant money from the state’s funding formula. By 2022, all the money from the Impact Aid program would go to the districts and schools that qualify for the grants.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-2 Friday to advance the bill, despite objections by certain school superintendents. They say the change would cut funding for other school districts by $50 million to $60 million a year.

“A lot of districts in the state stand to be losers on this,” said Kirk Carpenter, superintendent of the Aztec public school district, a stand echoed by several of his colleagues.

But other school superintendents and representatives of some of the state’s pueblos and tribes countered that Native American children need the federal grants to bridge an achievement gap. Native Americans and other at-risk students often fall behind Anglo students in New Mexico.

“These funds are needed in our districts,” said Elston Yepa, Second Lt. Gov. of Jemez Pueblo. “With Native American students in schools, we are always left behind.”

A woman who said she was a liaison for the Laguna Pueblo school district also said the bill is essential to lifting Native American kids by making sure their schools get the money.

“We deserve to receive all 100 percent of these funds,” she said.

It’s unlikely that, when the federal government created the Impact Aid program in 1950, anybody expected it would pit regions against each other nearly 70 years later.

The initiative offers grants to school districts and charter schools that are on federal land. Other objectives are to educate children living in federal property, children whose parents work on federal property and children with parents in the military.

Muñoz’s and Sanchez’s bill includes a $15 million allocation as a bridge in school funding before shifting all of the money in the next three years. But they aren’t proposing an appropriation to cover the potential losses by other districts.

That makes educational leaders around the state leery of the idea.

“We know you are at a critical crossroads as you try to determine how best to handle this,” said Stan Rounds, head of the state’s Coalition of Educational Leaders. “We know this is a hard choice. ... You can assume we are a house divided.”

Last year, New Mexico received $78.2 million in operational funding for those districts in the Impact Aid program. But the state government moved $58.7 million of that into the regular funding formula, a recent state report said.

Sens. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, and Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, voted against the bill. They said it needs refinement to offset a negative impact on other school districts.

Soules suggested the sponsors settle for an even split of the federal money for several years as a compromise.

Neither Muñoz nor Sanchez responded to that idea.

But they said they would try to find the money to fill the gap for other districts and include it an amendment for the Senate Finance Committee.

Muñoz also agreed to table a second bill that would have immediately redirected all the Impact Aid money to the applicable districts.