While the recent Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico decision has understandably received intense interest for its landmark ruling that New Mexico’s public schools are not adequately funded, there has been less attention on another, equally important aspect of the ruling: the finding that more money will only make a difference for students if it is spent in the classroom.
As Judge Singleton explained in her ruling, there are two aspects to the state’s failure to provide an adequate education. First, she concluded that not enough money is spent to fund the programs children need.
Second, Judge Singleton stated (on page 53 of her decision) that the Public Education Department and school districts are not doing enough to make sure that the money is actually being spent in ways that will improve outcomes for at-risk students.
Last year, Think New Mexico studied some of the most successful school districts in the state, such as Gadsden, Texico, and Farmington. We found that these districts tend to spend a high proportion of their budgets on classroom expenses, such as teachers, coaches, counselors, nurses, educational assistants, and school supplies, rather than on administrative expenses in the central district office.
Other researchers have come to the same conclusion. For example, several years ago the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory conducted an extensive study of 1,500 school districts in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico, and concluded that “student achievement is linked to spending patterns, and money matters when spent on instruction.”
This study found that, 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, and they also tend to employ smaller numbers of administrative staff.
As the Yazzie ruling put it: “The evidence demonstrated that money spent on classroom instruction programs such as quality pre-K, K-3 Plus, extended school year, and quality teachers can all improve the performance of at-risk students and overcome the gap caused by their backgrounds.” (page 45, emphasis added)
Unfortunately, too much of New Mexico’s school spending has gone to categories that don’t make a difference for students.
Statewide, New Mexico only spends an average of 57 percent of its education dollars on instruction, according to the National Center on Education Statistics. Another 13% goes to student support and instructional support. The remaining 30% of the education budget – nearly one out of every three dollars appropriated for education – is spent on administrative costs.
To address this, the Yazzie ruling does not simply direct policymakers to spend more on education, as it has sometimes been portrayed. It also directs policymakers to do more to ensure that districts spend those additional dollars on evidence-based classroom programs.
Perhaps the best aspect of the Yazzie decision is that it brings together the two sides of the education debate that have long been opposed. Judge Singleton made it clear that New Mexico needs more money in its education budget – and also needs to spend it better.
We agree. The legislature and the next governor should make sure that every additional dollar appropriated in response to the Yazzie decision is spent in the classroom. (One strategy for accomplishing this was proposed last year in a bill drafted by Think New Mexico and sponsored by Representative Larry Larrañaga, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, and Representative Bobby Gonzales, a former school district superintendent, which would have established target levels of each school district’s and charter school’s budget that must be spent in the classroom.)
As a new school year begins, parents and families across New Mexico should urge policymakers to fully respond to the landmark Yazzie decision and increase public school funding while also putting in place strong accountability measures that will make sure that those additional dollars actually reach our students in the classroom.
Fred Nathan is Executive Director of Think New Mexico, an independent, nonpartisan, results-oriented think tank serving New Mexicans, which last year published a report titled “Improving Our Public Schools by Reallocating Dollars from Administration to the Classroom.” Learn more at www.thinknewmexico.org