Advocates critique budget, education process

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Heath Haussamen/New Mexico In Depth

A statue of children outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

As a powerful House committee nears completion of a draft state budget this week, leaders of a movement to transform New Mexico education through multicultural, bilingual education reforms say crucial funding to achieve their vision could go missing from the soon-to-emerge spending plan. And they say it’s already gone missing from a House omnibus education bill.

They worry too that legislative leaders aren’t taking seriously the need to strengthen three state laws focused on multicultural, bilingual education that are at the core of a historic court ruling by a state judge last year. In her scorching July 2018 ruling, Judge Sarah Singleton found the state guilty of depriving large swaths of public school children of their constitutional right to a sufficient education.

“I don’t think there is direct opposition that I see,“ Rep. Tomas Salazar, D-Las Vegas, said of funding and multicultural, bilingual education ideas during a late-morning press conference put on by Transform Education NM, a coalition of teachers, parents, students, district superintendents, bilingual experts and nonprofit organizations.

He and others, he said, sensed “silence” more than anything.

“Sometimes my biggest fear is that we will be ignored,” Salazar said.

Edward Tabet-Cubero of Learning Alliance New Mexico, also a speaker at the press conference, said that the coalition and longtime legislative leaders have different areas of emphasis on how to improve education.

“The Legislature has started with limitations on the budget, here’s how much money we think we have in play, and they go try to divvy it up to meet some needs,” Tabet-Cubero said. “The judge said, identify the programs and services and then fund them.”

Salazar, Tabet-Cubero and other advocates are hanging their political position on hopes that they, and not the Legislature, better understand Singleton who ended her ruling speaking of New Mexico’s school children caught in an “inadequate system” who will “be irreparably harmed if better programs are not instituted.”

“It is simply too easy to conserve financial resources” at the expense of “our constitutional resources, the judge wrote.

Wednesday’s press conference is the latest sign within the Legislature of how the effort is going to address Singleton’s demand that the state do better when educating its at-risk public school children. A large population of the state’s public school students qualify for one at-risk factor, the judge said in her ruling last year. Nearly three of every four come from low-income families. One in seven are English language learners; the same percentage are disabled. One in 10 are Native American.

The press conference exposed wrestling going on behind closed doors among state lawmakers as they navigate political, geographical, racial and ethnic fault lines and lurch toward an agreement to improve education. A few hope it will satisfy Singleton. Many more predict whatever the Legislature does likely won’t be enough and Singleton will slap the state with a court order, mandating action overseen by the court.

Singleton set a date of April 15 to review the plan that emerges from the legislative session.  

At the halfway point in the 60-day legislative session, the Legislature’s response to Singleton’s ruling is advancing along two paths.

One is budgetary and contemplates how much more in state dollars to pump into public education, making the state budget the focus of much of the attention.

The other involves an ongoing discussion about how best to improve New Mexico’s educational system, through statutory changes, educational fixes and policy recommendations.

Like the state budget proposal, legislative committees are moving key bills through the Legislature at the same time behind-closed-doors conversations are going on involving high-powered legislative leaders. At some point if not already, they will involve Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s education team, too.

On the money end of the conversation, the coalition wants an injection of a billion new dollars for public education, about double what the Legislature so far has proposed in new educational dollars.

The coalition wants included in the state budget funding for a series of bills that would strengthen New Mexico’s Bilingual, Indian and Hispanic education acts – the three statutes Singleton hinged her ruling on last year, as much for their unmet promise as the finding that the state wasn’t following them.

Salazar is sponsoring three of the pieces of legislation worth $15 million and meant to enhance the existing education acts, but he fears they won’t end up in a draft state budget scheduled for a vote next week before the House Appropriations and Finance Committee (HAFC).

Rep. Patty Lundstrom of Gallup, and the Democratic chairwoman of the House budget committee, said Wednesday the HAFC will vote on the proposal Monday, but because public education is “a big piece of that … we’re still looking at all the parts.”

On the policy end of the legislative education conversation, there seem to be more moving parts.

The House and Senate are each advancing large omnibus pieces of legislation dedicated to education that lawmakers hope will address many of Singleton’s concerns.

In the coming weeks, legislative leaders, with input from the governor’s team, will decide what goes into final education legislation that must pass both chambers before it goes to Lujan Grisham for her signature.

Some bills that don’t have an attached appropriation of dollars are moving in the House on their own. But earning a spot in the House omnibus education bill increases the likelihood that proposed programs and services will make it into the final version that goes to the governor. That’s why Salazar said he was concerned by the rejection of his bill and others supported by the coalition in the House’s omnibus education bill.

It’s why he was one of two members of the House Education Committee to vote against the House omnibus education bill – HB5 – last week, Salazar said.

That “tells me something. To me that is silence,” Salazar said. “It’s not somebody coming up to me and directly saying I don’t want to touch this …”