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Shelley-and-Jesus
Tutor Shelley Cohen helps student Jesús Pavon build his literacy skills at Literacy Volunteers of Santa Fe.

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More than half of the state’s literacy funding was cut this year

December 14, 2011, 12:00 am

When Fabiola Melendez came to New Mexico from Chihuahua, Mexico, in 2002, she brought with her a sick daughter and limited English skills. After the move to Moriarty, Melendez says she spent seven months in the hospital with her daughter, who at the time was suffering from pneumonia. 


Communicating with her daughter’s doctors was a must, so Melendez enrolled in Moriarty’s Read “Write” Adult Literacy Program. Within two years, she could speak, read and write English at a functional level. 


“The program was here when I needed it,” Melendez, now a program director at Read “Write,” tells SFR.
Today, the program still runs, albeit on a much tighter budget. During the summer, Read “Write” narrowed its staff from three to one. Melendez’ work was cut from full-time to 30 hours a week, although she still says she spends 40 hours a week working there. On the weekends, Melendez’ cashier job at Walmart helps her compensate financially.


Across the state, programs like Read “Write” are all feeling the consequences of cuts made by the state Legislature earlier this year. During the general session in January, state lawmakers trimmed funding to adult literacy programs by 57 percent. To many, it was a significant blow to desperately needed services. 


“We have a lot of folks that still can’t read today,” state Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Los Alamos, tells SFR. “That’s the big issue of the day.” 


In New Mexico, 20 percent of the population is illiterate, higher than the roughly 14 percent of the US population as a whole. And the bleak figures don’t end there. Across the state, 46 percent of the population can’t read above a sixth-grade level, according to statistics from the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy.


As a result, many in-state jobs are given to out-of-state residents.


“Our own citizens and residents can’t qualify for jobs,” Heather Heunermund, executive director of the coalition, tells SFR. 


Numbers like these also concern Kevan Morshed, a coordinator with Literacy Volunteers of Santa Fe. The cutbacks have left his organization, which tutors about 375 adult students every year, $30,000, or 20 percent of last year’s budget, short. Literacy Volunteers also has to compensate for the students who once used now-defunct services outside of Santa Fe.


“A lot of programs went belly-up,” Morshed tells SFR. “So we’re stretching our capacity more than possible.” 


In total, six of 23 literacy programs that receive state money were eliminated this year. That spells significant trouble for northern New Mexico, where illiteracy rates are worse than much of the rest of the state: More than half of Taos County residents and 61 percent of Rio Arriba County residents are functionally illiterate. 


And the number of people who need the classes isn’t getting smaller. This year, the Literacy Center at the University of New Mexico Taos is on track to serve more students than it did in 2010, staffer Marta Romero says. But budget realities present limits: Romero says all state literacy funding to UNM-Taos’ literacy program was eliminated this year, forcing it to rely on federal grants and corporate donations.


Students can’t take home class books anymore. All evening classes, including those for general equivalence degree training and English as a second language, have been eliminated, even though they amounted to nearly half of the classes UNM-Taos offered last year. 


“It’s really inconvenient for the students who have to work during the day,” Romero tells SFR. “Some of those students won’t finish their GED training.”


Across the state, 46 percent of the population can’t read above a sixth-grade level, according to statistics from the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy.


For nearly 25 years, all state funding for programs like the UNM-Taos Literacy Center has been funneled through the Coalition for Literacy. In January, as the Legislature faced the challenge of balancing a $450 million budget deficit, all of the coalition’s funding was initially eliminated according to recommendations from the Legislative Finance Committee. 


The LFC recommendations weren’t the result of a partisan agenda, Heunermund says. 


“The money just wasn’t there,” she says. 


Cisneros seconds that, adding that literacy funding wasn’t explicitly targeted.


“During budget deficits, everything’s on the table,” he says.


When the LFC’s recommendations extended to the Senate Finance Committee, Cisneros helped convince the committee to restore $125,000 in state literacy grants. In all, $325,000 was restored, amounting to 43 percent of funding from the year before.  


As a result, literacy programs have stepped up fundraising efforts.


“The biggest thing is we’ve had to rely on ourselves to make up the shortfall,” Patrick Carr, a tutor and vice president of the Literacy Volunteers of Santa Fe board, tells SFR. 


The unreliability of state funding has Carr thinking about ways to move off of state funding. Likewise, Heunermund speaks of the experience as a wake-up call for the coalition to move beyond its original
purpose. 


She sees, for example, a future in which the coalition doesn’t have to keep any of the state literacy money for itself by reducing expenses and increasing efforts for fundraising. Currently, it keeps about 20 percent of the allocated literacy money to pay for its administrative costs. 


But for now, that future is far off. Heunermund is cautiously optimistic that more money will be restored to literacy during the upcoming legislative session. This time around, the state has a $250 million surplus to work with, which potentially opens a door for restoring previously cut programs. 


“There could be hope for organizations like ours,” Heunermund says. “We believe we’re an essential
service.”

 

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