COMMENTARY: “I support our schools.” It’s a common refrain among legislators, all of whom want to be thought of as “champions” of education. With all proclaiming their support for the schools, who are the legislators who truly champion education?
Let us begin before legislators started their session work and the public-relations hacks got to spinning.
The governor proposed to fix the so-called “solvency” issue for the current 2017 fiscal year in the first days of this session by calling for huge budget cuts to our schools and less take-home pay for educators and state employees. Legislators were asked to take from educators (and state employees) 3.5 percent of their take-home pay.
Our state’s Republican governor wanted legislators to balance the state’s budget by taking $1,190 out of a beginning teacher’s $34,000 salary!
While asking educators and state employees to carry the weight of the budget burden, the governor also called for for a $120 million cut to school district budgets. Ironically, she also claimed opposition to budget cuts that would affect the classroom.
Democratic majorities in both chambers quickly said no to that request for a 3.5 percent salary cut, and they reduced the $120 million cut to $46 million total. In the last few months of any fiscal year, it is impossible for Legislature to create new revenue sources for that same fiscal year.
Forty-one of the state’s 89 superintendents stood outside in freezing winds last Friday to detail how the $46 million reduced budgets have already lead to major impacts on the classrooms across our state, and to demand increased revenues to fund our schools. Alluding to those who claim recent or future cuts do not impact the classroom, Artesia schools Superintendent Crit Caton said, “I’m not going to stand here and call him a bald-faced liar — I’ll say they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Republican Rep. Roch, speaking last Friday to the New Mexico School Boards Association, tried yet another spin. Roch said, “We send $50 million a year to Hollywood… I’d rather choose education than making another movie.” This false choice ignores what he knows is true: unlike most tax credits, our state film and TV tax credits are only issued after money is spent in New Mexico, employing New Mexicans throughout our state. Film and TV money spent here means jobs for New Mexico families, and families no longer in distress raise more successful students.
Roch and other Republican legislators also blame Democratic legislators for the 2017 cuts, even though most Republican senators also voted for the 2017 cuts. They ignore their years of having supported budgets that insufficiently fund our schools, and that the cuts passed were less than half of what our Republican governor asked for.
Senator Brandt and Representative Harper (both R-Rio Rancho) also pose a false choice: cut other spending to fund the public schools. Which other vital services would they cut now (after years of prior cuts)? Public Safety? Mental health services? Child protective services? Road and public building maintenance?
While having voted against the 2017 cuts, they offer no support for revenue needed to avoid cuts now in 2018.
Voting against sufficient funding for schools, year after year, is not what an education champion does. Voting against raises to help attract our best into the education arena is not what an education champion does. Voting against raising revenue to keep school spending at its already critically low funding level is not what an education champion does.
The only real choice is to raise additional revenue. It is true not every Democratic legislator actively supports all new revenue measures, and not every Republican legislator is against them all. A leaked document from the Republican caucus shows them considering some moderate revenue increases.
Moving forward, the House of Representatives passed a budget that very slightly increases school spending, relying on possible new revenue. It passed largely on party lines in the Democratic controlled House. House Bill 202, which would create additional revenue to fund that budget bill, has also been passed by the House. Senate committees are now passing a variety of other revenue bills sponsored Democratic senators too. HJR1, the early childhood education bill, is also moving through the Legislature. Champions of education will support these measures.
The last few weeks of the session provide many more opportunities for those who would be education champions to live up to their potential – and if they do, New Mexico’s students will be better supported to live up to their potential for success.
Charles Goodmacher, a parent of two school-aged daughters, lobbies for public school students and educators on behalf of the National Education Association – New Mexico. This commentary reflects his perspective on what’s happening now in Santa Fe around the state budget and support for public schools.