Report: Education spending still below recession levels

Tax cuts undermined efforts to improve schools

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New Mexico's public school funding remains 11.7 percent below education spending levels before the recession hit in 2008, a new national report says, adding that the decline has undercut the state's ability to reform its education system and improve its economic outlook.

Using 2015 data from state budgets and the U.S. Census Bureau, the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says in its report that New Mexico is one of 29 states that are still providing less money for public schools than they did before the recession. New Mexico ranked 15th on the list, just below Wisconsin, whose funding for schools is 10.6 percent lower than in 2008, and above California, which has seen a decrease of 11.8 percent.

The report, which uses funding figures adjusted for inflation, said most of those 29 states decreased education funding for a number of reasons, including declining oil and gas revenues, a lack of revenue-raising initiatives and continued income-tax cuts, which have chipped into states' general funds.

Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute, said during a Tuesday telephone conference call with reporters that New Mexico schools are paying for tax cuts that began before the recession -- and even before Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's first term in office.

"Your ability to invest in your schools is severely limited by those decisions of the past, before the recession hit," he said. "And it continues to have an important impact."

Tax cuts have undermined efforts around the nation to improve schools by hiring more qualified teachers and decreasing classroom size, Leachman said.

"We all depend on the creativity and intellectual capacity of our people," he said. "If we neglect our schools, we diminish our future."

The new report, called "A Punishing Decade for School Funding," was expected to be publicly released early Wednesday. It follows another study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, released in August, that found New Mexico is among the states that have experienced the steepest reductions in higher education spending since the recession, investing nearly a third less per student in the last fiscal year than it did in 2008.

Martinez repeatedly has said the state has invested more money in public education every year since she took office. But the report makes it clear that even annual bumps leading up to the now $2.7 billion public education budget -- about 44 percent of the state's $6.2 billion budget -- is still far lower than investments made almost a decade ago.

"You would have to review more recent data that justifies an argument that New Mexico has dug its way out of that hole," Leachman said. "I haven't seen evidence that there has been a huge increase over the last couple of years in school funding in New Mexico."

The long-simmering debate over whether New Mexico, which consistently ranks at or near the bottom among states for student achievement and other educational measures, provides sufficient funding for schools was spotlighted this summer in state District Judge Sarah Singleton's Santa Fe courtroom. Singleton heard weeks of testimony in a trial for a civil lawsuit seeking to force New Mexico to fulfill its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate public education for all students.

Singleton is still considering that case and is expected to issue a ruling in early 2018.

The report also comes just months after one released by the U.S. Census Bureau that said New Mexico ranks 34th in per-student spending for public schools, at $9,752 per student -- 14.6 percent below the national average. That report also used 2015-16 data.

The new report suggests states find new ways to increase revenues for schools. But it is unlikely that Martinez will approve of tax increases before her term ends early in 2019. Legislative efforts to raise taxes have met with her veto pen.

The governor also has refused to draw more money from the state's permanent funds, as some Democrats have called for, to invest in education.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said it would not release the report to state education agencies until early Wednesday. New Mexico education officials declined to comment for this story because they could not review the data.

According to the study, Arizona schools fared the worst, with education funding cuts of 36.6 percent since 2008, while North Dakota's schools have benefited the most, with an increase of more than 96 percent between 2008 and 2015.

The report did not take into account education investments made by the federal government.

This story first appeared in The New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News. Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.c­om.

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