Opinion: Money spent on classroom instruction well-spent

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Studies indicate that how education dollars are spent is as important as how much is spent. These reports confirm that student achievement improves when schools spend more of their budgets on classroom instruction and student support.

Researchers at the nonpartisan Southwest Educational Development Laboratory studied 1,500 school districts in the region. They found, in general, high-performing school districts spend a larger percentage of their budgets on instruction and a lower percentage on general administration than lower-performing districts. High-performing districts also tend to employ smaller numbers of administrators.

Two good examples are Texico, a district of 560 students in eastern New Mexico, and Gadsden, a district of 13,478 students south of Las Cruces. As noted in a recent report by Think New Mexico, both districts consistently achieve strong student performance even while educating a high percentage of students from low-income families. Both districts also spend a relatively high percentage of their budgets in the classroom.

Gadsden is the most efficient school district in New Mexico. It spends only $219 per student on general administration and central services annually. By comparison, the statewide average spent on these two categories per student is a whopping $1,164.

We worked with Think New Mexico in examining strategies to target more funding towards New Mexico’s classrooms. House Bill 180 is the result of our work. HB 180 sets achievable targets for districts and charter schools to maximize the percentage of their budgets spent in the classroom. The targets are voluntary, but districts and schools that do not meet these goals must submit a plan to improve classroom spending. The bill also provides an incentive by allowing districts and charters that meet classroom spending targets to protect their cash reserves from being reallocated even during lean budget years.

Our plan expands the current definition of “classroom spending” to include instructional and student support provided by personnel such as librarians, counselors and nurses as well as principals. Research suggests that investments in all of these areas of direct student support can have a powerful positive impact on student achievement, and schools should be encouraged to direct funds to these services.

We propose that the Public Education Department help districts and charters reach the classroom spending targets by eliminating unnecessary reporting burdens. Every year, districts and charters are required to submit at least 140 reports to the PED. Meeting these reporting requirements consumes thousands of staff hours annually.

A better approach would be to eliminate these manual reports and move to an advanced data collection system. A centralized system would allow districts to electronically enter the information they collect about student attendance, performance and demographics and have the data automatically uploaded to the state.

An advanced data collection system would save New Mexico school districts more than $46.5 million annually. Since the PED is already piloting an advanced data collection project, it is already in the budget and can be implemented at no additional cost to state taxpayers.

Moving this money to the classroom will make more money available for critical needs that directly benefit students, such as addressing the statewide teacher shortage, expanding access to early childhood education and improved pay for educators. We know it can be done because many of New Mexico’s highest performing districts are already doing it.

A bipartisan team of state representatives back HB 180, including the chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, Patty Lundstrom (D-Gallup), and multiple educators: George Dodge (D-Santa Rosa), retired teacher and principal; Tim Lewis (R-Albuquerque), teacher; Dennis Roch (R-Logan), superintendent; Jim Smith (R-Sandia Park), teacher, among others.

Please contact your legislators and let them know you want New Mexico’s education budget focused on the classroom, not administrative offices. You can learn more and contact your legislators from Think New Mexico’s website at thinknewmexico.org.

Representative Larry Larrañaga (R-Albuquerque) is the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Representative Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales (D-Taos) is chair of the House Transportation and Public Works Committee and a former school district superintendent.

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Roger Harrington

After reading Mr. Gonzales's comments a few things came to mind. For reasons beyond me, the state legislature has traditionally underfunded schoosl, so anything that increases monies for the classroom is welcome. I know that, among other reports submitted to the state, STARS (Student Teacher Accountability Reporting System) gives enrollment and demographic data to the state three times a year. In addition, 4 year and 5 year graduation rates and the state accountability test measure success among the district and charter schools. Could this data collection be improved? I think so, given the dedication and learnedness of those employees of NMPED who would implement such a system. But, a data system is only as good as the what is reported locally, so without a local person to validate the data, it could be misleading.

When I looked at the data reports for Taos Municipal Schools, and the state at large, I was appalled. Taos pretty much paralleled the state and, if what I read is accurate, we have about a 30% proficiency rate in Reading, Math and Science. When I looked at the Charter schools I see one at passing level and two at excellence levels, so something is working for them. If funding for the schools is dependent on performance, then we are all in trouble. I would think that a look at what works in the charter and private schools should be applied to public schools. Why aren't they?

To be sure, we do have some problems that should be remedied. Parent engagement is low in public schools, and high in charter and private schools, and that engagement makes a difference in performance. If the social status of the teachers is raised, as in Scandinavian countries, more respect is given to them by the students and they try harder. If expectations for students are raised, most will rise to the task. (I know of a principal of an elementary school who raised the performance of his school from 3rd from the bottom, in the state, to 3rd from the top by just assuming that all his students would attend college)

In summary, more money to the classrooms is a good idea. Also increasing salaries and education expectations for teachers would be beneficial. This region, this state, this country needs to pay attention to the primary and secondary public education system to move up into a competing level with the countries would are now emerging as the workforce and leaders of the 21st century, before it's too late.

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