The unfairness of the fair funding formula

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – A bill reforming the state school funding formula passed the House of Representatives by a 52-16 margin last week and then quickly won a “do-pass” ticket through its first committee in the Senate on Friday.The bill is of concern to Los Alamos because the proposed changes affect local schools in reverse. While the bill is meant to increase funding for state schools, and does appear to increase state-funded program costs of 86 of the 89 school districts in the state, Los Alamos would lose nearly $1.9 million annually if the formula were in effect this year. Two other small districts would lose less than $88,000 between them.Rep. Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe, led the opposition to the bill, raising unresolved questions and several unknowns about the bill’s uncertain future.“I do have a problem with this bill,” she said. “It hurts when you take $2 million away from one school district.”  

Where are the funds?

The law is not in effect yet; its financial provisions can’t take effect until 2009-2010 at the earliest and 2013 at the latest.  One of the arguments against the bill is that it creates an elaborate financial scheme without identifying a reliable funding stream, a theoretical problem left to solve another day.The bill as proposed would cost $354 million, an overall increase of 14.5 percent of the current budget. Of that amount, $22 million in additional funding for one of the five extra school days to be added to the schedule, has already been funded, leaving an amount of $322 million that will need to be identified before the sufficiency law can take effect. During the two-hour debate in the House on Thursday, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Bernalillo said, “We will find those recurring streams before we move forward.” Meanwhile, according to an amendment supplied by the House Appropriation Committee, any additional funds “enacted by law or constitutional amendment” after Jan. 1, 2008, would be put in a “lockbox” until the full amount was achieved.The Legislative Finance Committee impact statement reported that under a three-year phase in, including inflation, that amount would grow to approximately $575 million.Although several funding measures have been introduced in the 2008 session, including a constitutional amendment, using a higher percentage of the land-grant permanent fund and increased property taxes, the funding is by no means assured. 

A bill with a long history

In introducing the bill, Stewart recalled basic facts about the lengthy struggle for educational reform in New Mexico: that it grew out of a widely recognized need for a significant increase of funding in the state.But how would the need be defined and how would it be allocated? Developing a rationale and a formula came out of a task force that after four years of trying was finally commissioned by the legislature in 2005. “Even though we have the second-highest rate of poverty in the nation,” she said, “our students can learn just as well. But more resources are needed.”The basic questions that were pursued in 23 public meetings and in discussions with superintendents, school boards, state government professionals, teachers, academics and parents were what does the public want and what do the schools need in order to do that.They found members of the public were very involved, Stewart said, that they want public schools to educate the “whole child,” to focus on academics, to teach students to read and write English, to recognize the diversity of our cultural heritage, and to provide enrichment classes for art, music and physical education, as well as counselors and nurses.After 16 months, the group did the math and calculated that based on what the public wanted for a sufficient education, the state schools were under-funded by about 14.5 percent.They discovered, Stewart said, “the current formula is a bit of a mess,” having been amended 70 times in the last 30 years. Instead of 25 funding factors, some of which were being “gamed” by school districts out of desperation for additional funds, there will only be seven, based on numbers of students impacted by such things as poverty, mobility and English language skills. How the formula hurts

After the Senate Education Committee approved the bill Friday, Los Alamos Superintendent Jim Anderson acknowledged that the local school system had never reported any student in poverty or with second language needs, demographics that will be revisited if the new formula takes hold.“If we had as many as 10 percent in poverty, that would cut the loss nearly in half,” he said. With 17 percent of its student population in special education, including some costly programs, changes in funding for special education is another local issue for parents.“It’s the fear that the district isn’t required to do as much as in the past or serve special education kids differently,” he said. “The way it boils down for us is if we continue to serve gifted students the way we do now, then money will have to come from somewhere else in the budget, so somebody is going to have to be hurt.”Rather than include special accounts for gifted programs, these costs would be built into the base program under the new plan, another area of concern for Los Alamos, where 13 percent of the population is designated “gifted.” 

The elephant in the room

Los Alamos School Board President Alison Beckman returned from the Senate Education Committee Hearing angry that chairwoman Sen. Cynthia Nava had brought up what Nava called “the elephant in the room”: the fact that Los Alamos receives an extra $8 million a year in school funds from the Department of Energy.“That proves this is discriminatory against Los Alamos,” she said. She charged that many districts in the state received Title I federal funds for low-income, which is not a factored into the allocation of funds.Boosting Los Alamos’ funds by about 33 percent, the DOE subsidy is meant to enable Los Alamos National Laboratory to attract and recruit scientists who might be reluctant to raise children in a typical New Mexican school district. The school board, in a letter dated Jan. 31, expressed its formal opposition to HB241 as currently written, which, they stated, “would have disastrous ramifications for our district.”Board members particularly emphasized the need to fortify a “hold harmless” provision in the legislation, so that it would guarantee that Los Alamos would receive “no less than the funds received this year plus an inflation factor in perpetuity.”Steve Girrens, board vice president, said it was understood that the bill is trying to address the issue of adequacy across the state.“We gave our official protest,” he said. “It would take so little to make sure there are no losers.”