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House committee advances $462M infusion for education

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BY ROBERT NOTT
The New Mexican

The House Education Committee on Saturday unanimously advanced a bill that would appropriate $452 million in new public school funding in the coming fiscal year for at-risk students in New Mexico and millions more for small schools.

The action comes as lawmakers and the governors are drafting an overall state budget for fiscal year 2020 that includes a $400 million to $500 million infusion for education to help fulfill a state District Court ruling in a lawsuit that says New Mexico has shortchanged several groups of students with the highest needs -- those learning English as a second language, special-needs students, low-income kids and Native American children.

District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe issued a final decree Thursday in the case, in which a group of plaintiffs argued New Mexico is failing to provide an adequate education for these students.

In her final ruling, Singleton again wrote that state leaders and the Public Education Department have violated the state constitution and “the rights of at-risk students by by failing to provide them with a uniform statewide system of free public schools sufficient for their education.”

Singleton’s decision has not placed a price tag on reforms needed to meet her mandates. She has given the Legislature and governor until April 15 to come up with a plan to satisfy the court’s directives.

Her final ruling late last week serves to remind the Legislature that it has to do more before the session ends March 16, said Gail Evans, lead counsel for some of the plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit.

“The Legislature is clearly not doing enough,” Evans said Saturday following the House Education Committee vote. House Bill 455 is, she said, “the bill that would implement needed change for at-risk students.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed a $3.3 billion public education budget for the fiscal year starting in July, an increase of $500 million.

The Legislative Finance Committee’s public education budget calls for an increase of about $416 million.
Evans said that’s not enough.

HB 455 would change the way the state defines an impoverished student, increasing the number of kids in that category from about 27 percent of the state’s student population to almost 75 percent.

The larger amount would cover the number of New Mexico schoolchildren who receive free or reduced-price school lunches, a federal indicator of poverty.

The legislation also provides an additional $10 million appropriation for small school districts, small schools that struggle with operational costs and schools in isolated areas.

“This will set a course for the education department to follow, a path for our students to succeed,” said Rep. Rudy Martinez, D-Bayard, one of five sponsors of the bill.

Whether the state could handle a nearly $1 billion financial commitment to schools is unclear as the 60-day legislative session moves into its final four weeks.

Some state legislators oppose such a jump, saying any plan to satisfy the court ruling must be phased in over years.

They say an immediate infusion of $1 billion, as plaintiffs in the lawsuit have said New Mexico schools need to meet the requirements of the judge’s ruling, would not be effective and that the state’s schools do not have the capacity, including enough teachers, to suddenly take on a number of new programs and initiatives.

Evans disagrees. She said money could be immediately channeled into higher salaries for teachers and school employees and to help schools pay for operational costs.

HB 455 goes next to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.