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New Mexico schools are funded at historic levels, but how much is directed to at-risk students remains unclear

Karla Corrales is well on her way toward becoming a chef. Five days a week, the 10th-grader gets to Santa Fe High School at 7:30 am and works for a little over an hour prepping ingredients before her first class. Later, she serves lunch, learning how to handle difficult customers—in this case, her peers.

“I love to cook and I want to share that I can cook with other people,” Corrales tells SFR before her Tuesday lunch shift. Corrales says she learned most of her culinary skills from her mother, but she’s gained foundational kitchen experience like time and temperature control, safety and sanitation in the cafeteria at Santa Fe High.

Corrales has a paid internship with Santa Fe Public Schools’ Student Nutrition Services, one of the many departments working with students to provide more than a traditional education, but career preparation as well.

The internship program at SFPS, made possible by federal funding, reflects just one district initiative. Michael Hagele, the district’s assistant superintendent of secondary school support, says it’s a critical one.

Dolores Ortega, Corrales’ manager in the cafeteria, tells SFR the aspiring chef is motivated and mature in her role, always notifying a supervisor when she’s prevented from making it to work on time.

But for “students who have struggled with a traditional approach to education in middle and high school,” Hagele tells SFR, “college and career technical education…builds in those tactile hands-on experiences for students at all levels.”

Schools across New Mexico are now funded at historic levels, thanks largely to federal pandemic relief money and an ongoing oil and gas boom. And while educators and advocates attempt to funnel that money to students who need it most, in part to comply with a sweeping 2018 court order, an analysis by SFR spotlights the difficulty of ensuring that money goes to “at-risk” children.

School funding is complex. How much each district receives is calculated via an à la carte-style funding formula, with more funding allocated to students with additional learning needs, such as those who receive special education services and English-development resources.

The state equalization guarantee, which was established as part of the 1974 Public School Finance Act, distributes money equitably—instead of relying on local property taxes—to ensure schools receive the same amount of money based on students’ needs.

In response to the Martinez and Yazzie v. State of New Mexico lawsuit that found public schooling to be inadequate for several student populations identified as at-risk, the Legislature successively increased the money allocated to districts through the guarantee.

The additional funding awarded to at-risk students increased by a factor of three since the 2018 court decision. Funding for extended learning programs and pre-K, allocations aimed at supporting at-risk students, has increased over the past four years—from roughly $200 million in 2019 to just under $700 million in fiscal year 2022.

Those enlarged investments are part of a broad effort that has increased funding for schools 23% since the court order.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration pointed to these increases when it filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in March 2020. First Judicial District Judge Matthew Wilson denied the state’s motion.

Wilhelmina Yazzie, a plaintiff on behalf of her son, Xavier Nez, who is now in college, says despite the mountains of cash now available to schools, children are still “starved of the resources that they’re needing.”

Culturally relevant programming and “social services that our children need,” are particularly lacking from schools in her area, Gallup, Yazzie tells SFR. “Because of the pandemic, they’ve been home and isolated. We’re trying to get back to what people call normal. I don’t want to go back to normal. I want to go back to something much better than the way it was before.”

Legislative Finance Committee Deputy Director Charles Sallee says the massive cash injection has reshaped school financing, but “whether that’s going to translate into better outcomes for students is unknown—we haven’t tested students for two years.”

Given the data coming from other states, Sallee explains, “at-risk students will likely slip further behind their peers at a greater rate.”

New Mexico public schools received $1.5 billion in federal emergency relief funding—split into three buckets of money—that must be spent by September 2024. That’s the rough equivalent of 40% of this year’s total state education budget.

While there is little oversight of how districts spend that money, the Public Education Department must approve distributions to schools. Much of the first round of cash went toward purchasing educational technology for students, as the pandemic left many New Mexico students without an internet connection.

Hilario “Larry” Chavez, Santa Fe Public Schools’ superintendent, says “working with our departments, we were able to develop a plan, how to address certain subgroups…with funding.”

According to a PED dashboard outlining how districts spent pandemic relief funds, SFPS allocated $60,000 each to activities for the four subgroups identified as at-risk in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit.

Chavez explains, with the influx of pandemic-related monies, the district funded programs that previously didn’t have financial backing. Daily tutoring, outdoor learning facilities and the internship program are three of them.

Corrales, the student intern, explains that she’s learned professional skills from her coworkers in the cafeteria.

“They teach me multiple things,” she says.

Several line-item vetoes by Lujan Grisham in the recently approved budget will give districts similar freedom—as they have with the federal pandemic-relief dollars—to finance programs for at-risk youth.

The governor cut the phrase “evidence-based” from four lines of the budget related to education, allocating funding for professional development, programming and interventions for at-risk students.

“Because you don’t have as much research about the potential benefits of that particular intervention,” says Sallee of the LFC, the state should be intentional about how the public money is spent.

Other education experts SFR spoke with also noted that evidence-based programming doesn’t necessarily best serve New Mexico’s unique student population.

The governor’s veto messages assert that the requirement to fund evidence-based programs limits “executive managerial function.”

In a six-part series, SFR is looking into the educational landscape in the state and how inequities in school have changed since the 2018 Martinez and Yazzie v. State of New Mexico lawsuit. One more story remains.

March 2 - Does Not Equal - New Mexico faces a steep climb to make education more equitable

March 9 - Disruptions to testing and muddied accountability

March 16 - New Mexico’s legacy to make better teachers

March 23 - Students remain disconnected despite the new virtual face of education

Coming Next:

April 6 - Language education shapes or denies students

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

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