COMMENTARY: Our K-12 public school classrooms are facing yet another steep funding crisis that will hit schools hard later this year, when their share of a $110 million annual cut statewide takes effect. Neither Gov. Susana Martinez, nor her state Public Education Department chief, Hanna Skandera, seem to be aware of it.
Larger class sizes, fewer teachers, fewer counselors, and reduced classes in physical education, music, dance and art can be expected if the experience of other states is any guide.
The huge shortfall and its consequences were foreseeable, and also easily preventable, earlier this year during the 2016 legislative session. But the majority Republican members of the state House of Representatives, backed by the governor, refused to even consider a fix for our schools’ fresh money problem. Now, students will feel the consequences. Frankly, we should all be outraged.
To understand the issue, we must go back to 2003, when the Legislature first decided to amend the state Constitution to put in place a higher annual distribution of funds to all public schools from our state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund.
Under the 2003 plan, an increase to 5.8 percent of the annual proceeds of the Fund would go to pay for classroom needs and to recruit and retain high quality teachers. The distribution was scheduled to decrease to 5.5 percent in later years, and a sunset provision was included to lower the amount all the way back to 5.0 percent beginning Jan. 1, 2017. It was expected that by then a future Legislature would set a new distribution level to meet our school’s needs. That day has arrived.
In February, the Senate passed Resolution 3 (SJR 3), or “Permanent Fund Annual Distributions” legislation, to deal with the new reality. It would have put in place an additional 0.8% distribution of funding for public education from the state Land Grant Permanent Fund, if passed by the Legislature and then approved by a majority of voters at the November ballot. It was a simple and democratic way to address a looming shortfall that everyone in the Legislature should have been aware of.
To be clear: Currently, public schools and other beneficiaries receive a 5.5 % annual distribution from the Fund. That percentage is scheduled to drop to 5.0% at the end of this year. SJR 3 sought to increase that distribution to 5.8% for 10 years. The increased 0.8% distribution would cease if the Permanent Fund ever fell below $12 billion; it is currently at $14 billion.
While our state is facing a dire shortfall in general fund revenues this year, the legislation would have allowed our critical public education system to continue operating without being cut, and even would have bolstered our classrooms. It also raised no taxes.
When SJR 3 passed the Senate and landed in the Republican-controlled House, as the end of the 30-day session approached, the measure languished for four days there without a single committee hearing. Despite the strong support of numerous groups and advocates for students and children, teachers and public schools, the measure died without a vote.
Because of funding shortfalls today nationwide, hundreds of thousands of teachers and staff members have been let go, fewer textbooks and computers are being purchased, busing for students has been cut back or eliminated, class sizes have been increased, and all-day kindergarten and summer classes have been cut. Even school weeks have been reduced to four days. Which of these options will New Mexico students see in 2017?
We are at the bottom of many school quality measures. Gutting the existing funds needed to operate our public schools across the state is the last thing we need. I think it will be a disaster for children and schools. House Republicans and the governor were reckless to kill this legislation for school funding.
Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, represents District 17 in the N.M. Senate.