A New Mexico legislator who introduced a bill in December to inject $360 million into the state’s public schools voted Monday to table his own proposal.
Both actions were symbolic.
“I’m under no illusion that we have the money, that this will get passed. This is very much a message bill that we have to look at how we fund public schools in New Mexico,” Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, told the Senate Education Committee.
Soules said he was looking to spark a serious discussion about whether public school funding is enough to cover students’ needs.
The general appropriation bill before the Legislature includes $2.7 billion for public school support from the state’s general funds out of a total of $6.5 billion .
Soules, a retired educator, told the committee that he based his $362 million figure on a 2008 independent study that reported that the state was under-funding public education by about 14.5 percent, and adjusted that number for inflation.
He said 30 years ago the state committed just over 50 percent of its entire budget to public education. That figure has slipped to about 43 or 44 percent, he said.
As a result, our level of education has slipped, Soules said, and “many believe that is because we under-fund education.”
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, asked Soules where he would get the new funding. “Medicaid… should we not fund that?” Brandt asked. “Where would you recommend we cut?”
Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, told Soules she likes the idea behind his bill but, “These dollars just are not available this year and probably won’t be for some years to come.”
New Mexico ranks near or at the bottom of most national educational surveys, and federal census data shows that about 30 percent of the state’s children live in poverty. Some educators and other experts argue that more money should be put into the education system to offset that handicap, while other say that poverty should be no barrier to student success.
Santa Fe Public Schools has joined several other districts, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in a lawsuit in state District Court in Santa Fe over public school funding.
That suit argues that the state is violating the New Mexico constitution by not providing a “sufficient” or “uniform” education, particularly to students living in poverty or learning English as a second language.
Citing that lawsuit during Monday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales and chair of the committee, said, “It’s amazing how one word can drive a lawsuit… sufficiency.” Sapien said it’s tough to define what sufficient funding is when the state has never really conducted an analysis of how much education should and does cost.
All but one member of the Senate Education Committee joined Soules in voting to permanently table the bill. Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, cast the one dissenting vote to move the bill forward.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or [email protected].