Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.

State makes substantial, if slow, response to Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Last winter, legislators steered an eye-popping amount of money toward fixing some long-standing imbalances in education funding. It included an adjustment of the once sacred state funding formula.
            That money and other revenue streams address the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, the landmark 2014 case that concluded New Mexico was failing its constitutional duty to educate poor children, Native American children, Spanish speakers, and other at-risk students. Reformers heralded the decision as a wake-up call, but recently, a leader of that effort, former Cochiti Pueblo Gov. Regis Pecos, blasted the state for its poor progress.
            Pecos is correct in part but not entirely fair if you look at the big picture.
            Last winter, legislators passed a monumental bill to end another long-standing and unfair practice. The federal government compensates districts that have a lot of federal land, like military bases and Indian reservations, for their lack of taxable property. It’s called impact aid. However, the state for many years has taken credit for 75 percent of impact aid and reduced state funding to the affected schools by that amount. So some districts lose funding but have no ability to tax property to make up their loss.
            HB 6 ended the state’s treatment of impact aid and called for districts to prioritize spending on Native American education, at-risk students, and capital outlay. Schools must report spending and outcomes.
            Lawmakers for years had tried to fix the impact aid problem but ran into fierce resistance because more money for Native American schools meant less money for everyone else. HB 6 protected the budgets of other school districts.
            HB 6 provided $83 million to schools; of that $67 million would go to impact aid districts. One of the bill’s drivers was the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit.
            This was a huge win in Indian Country that got scant coverage anywhere else.
            Its primary sponsor was Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who is painfully aware of education inequities affecting her local schools. She also chairs the Legislative Finance Committee, which recently heard Regis Pecos’s criticisms.
            Legislators this year also passed four bills developed by the Tribal Education Alliance in response to the lawsuit. Primarily sponsored by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, they help recruit and train Native American teachers and support tribes to provide language education, culturally relevant curricula, and improved internet access, among other things.
            During the 2020 session, the Legislature added $217 million to the public school budget (following a $500 million increase in 2019). And it increased school district capital outlay and at-risk money for districts with small property-tax bases. The latter was a direct response to the lawsuit.
            Add to this the substantial efforts around early childhood education, better teacher pay, and other measures, and you can see that lawmakers weren’t exactly sitting on their hands.
            Pecos complained that it was impossible to see if that money was sifting down to classrooms and students. He was also dissatisfied that the state doled out education dollars to tribes through grants, which undermines permanence.
            Eyes are now on the state Public Education Department. The news organization Searchlight New Mexico has suggested that PED “has not only resisted deep institutional self-reflection but also exhaustive and inclusive transformation.”
            PED Secretary Ryan Stewart said his agency has had “a mindset shift.” His predecessors spent a lot of time and money fighting the lawsuit. LFC members questioned turnover among Stewart’s lieutenants, but it’s possible that some departing staffers were holdovers from the previous administration. With this changing of the guard, Stewart has an opportunity to hire or promote teammates with a like mindset.
            I learned years ago, as a contractor working on an education-reform project, that these changes take years. We’ve made a good start, but Covid knocked the system on its ear. We need to give Stewart, PED, and the schools some time for the process to work. 


Sherry Robinson photo

© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 7/26/21                                  
A little more respect for teachers
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            “The NM school system is a total disaster IMO,” a reader from Hobbs wrote to me recently. “Our children deserve much better than they are receiving and it's entirely the fault of the politicians and the people they appoint to oversee the education system.”
            He switched from blaming politicians to blaming incompetent teachers, who, he said, should be fired. I agree. But, as I pointed out in response, New Mexico has a statewide teacher shortage and there is no assurance that we could replace them with anyone better – or with anyone at all, for that matter.
            Our students will soon be going back to in-person school after the most difficult school year in modern history. Let’s consider this from a different perspective and take a minute to note some of the pressures that affect our teachers.
            Simple logic tells us that if qualified people don’t want to be teachers, there’s a reason. Try asking yourself what factors would have to change to make you willing to be a public school teacher these days.
            Low pay is probably one. If we want teachers with a higher level of qualifications, puny 2 or 3 percent raises will not make a difference. If our current teachers are not adequate, we need to attract people with better qualifications. So we would have to pay them like professionals. Then we would have to treat them like professionals, give teachers the freedom to use their intelligence and initiative, and let them try creative approaches that could not be measured by rigid standards. But you and I know New Mexico will not do that.
            What about other demands we are placing on our schools these days?
            I’m thinking of it this way: What is the worst thing that could happen to you if you were a teacher?
            Some errors might be embarrassing but endurable. Other kinds of mistakes might destroy your career and force you to leave town.
            Here are a few top priorities:

  • Protecting students from getting shot.
  • Protecting students from being sexually molested.
  • Preventing students from killing each other with drugs.
  • Violating your local community’s standard for political correctness.

            In some communities that is using the wrong word for an ethnic group. In some other communities it is suggesting that transsexual children have the right to use the bathroom. A teacher can be hounded out of town for inadvertently violating the local norm, even though the norms keep changing.
            Mere mediocre teaching results do not make it on to this list. And I haven’t even mentioned building maintenance.
            At the same time, packs of hungry lawyers are watching on the periphery, waiting for the misstep that will get you humiliated beyond recovery and your school district sued.
            It’s one thing to criticize teachers for doing a lousy job. It’s quite another thing to punish them by taking away more of the resources that they already do not have enough of. That’s a mistake we often make in how we treat all branches of government.
            So maybe we need to do better at finding incentives to attract qualified people to this work, or give the current batch of teachers better training and more resources, and then treat them as if we respect them.
            My reader suggested that New Mexico should look to other states that are more successful for better methods of education.
            Good idea. To her credit, the governor hired a secretary of education from out of state. Secretary Ryan Stewart came with multi-state experience and an impressive background. But he didn’t have a chance to do much before the pandemic and the shutdown. Now he and the whole system have lots of catching up to do. Let’s take a breath and let them try.
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