Here in New Mexico, we’re about to get more money for schools, but we don’t know yet how that will translate into better learning for kids. As I wrote recently, the court ruling in Yazzie v. State of New Mexico ordered the state to ensure by next April that “schools have the resources necessary to give at-risk students the opportunity to obtain a uniform and sufficient education.”
There is a healthy debate to be had about where this additional funding might go. What isn’t contentious is that our current spending of nearly $3 billion a year on K-12 education isn’t providing a valuable return on investment for student learning.
A local think tank recently found that New Mexico spends a mere 57 cents of every educational dollar on classroom instruction, including teacher salaries, putting us at 43rd in the nation for the proportion spent on instruction.
Worse yet, House Bill 180, which sought to increase the percentage of spending directed to the classroom, was decried by districts, unions and superintendents alike. “Give us more money,” they say, “but just hand us the check and don’t ask questions.”
Well, that we can’t abide any longer.
Regardless of how much additional money is spent on education, it won’t amount to much unless we work together and identify strategic investment areas. If we simply dump another $400 million into district coffers, we won’t see substantive improvement and will have little to show for spending nearly half of our state budget on K-12 education.
As a twice-exceptional dropout considered “at-risk” myself, my ears perk up when I hear students with backgrounds like mine being used as props. Already special-interest groups are lining up to fill their coffers based on “reaching” students like myself. Their intentions seem good. Just don’t ask them to provide evidence of learning or growth.
It’s Time to Invest Wisely in Students, Teachers and 21st-Century Schools
No matter how many special interests line up at the trough, let’s not underestimate the opportunity at hand for the people who really count: students and teachers. The Yazzie ruling has already added fuel to the conversation about where we are coming up short and how to build a 21st-century education system. This is our opportunity to build a house anew from the ground up, instead of making additions to a one-hundred-year-old “fixer upper” far past its prime.
Let’s make sure Jayla and Mrs. Jones in Roswell have the art supplies she’s so excited about. And let’s make sure their school, Military Heights Elementary, has a STEM lab with 3D printers so she can print more robotic dogs and mini mansions.
New Mexico could provide high-quality professional development for Mrs. Jones and her colleagues to run that STEM lab and create more of the hands-on, immersive learning experiences that younger generations expect. We should fund the creation of a STEAM-focused middle school where Jayla and her classmates can continue to explore their youthful passions for art and technology.
Lawsuits like Yazzie matter, immensely, yet what matters even more is reorienting our entire education spending approach to center on optimism, collaboration, innovation and accountability. Spending more money on more of the same won’t get us far.
No matter how much additional funding comes as a result of Yazzie, unless we spend that money with Jayla and Mrs. Jones in mind, we won’t be better off. If we in New Mexico can pull that off, we could show the rest of the country how to rethink the way it spends on schools, too.