State education department seeks additional funds to comply with Yazzie/Martinez

Dec. 6—New Mexico Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus is seeking $4.1 billion for the agency in the 2024 fiscal year, an increase of more than $200 million, with a main goal: closing achievement and attendance gaps, particularly among student groups identified in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit.

"That is our No. 1 goal, and this entire budget is built around moving forward and addressing that goal," Steinhaus told the Legislative Education Study Committee in a presentation Tuesday.

The Public Education Department — which received 45 percent of the total state budget in fiscal year 2023 — continues to work to comply with a 2018 state court ruling that found it had failed to provide a sufficient education to low-income, special education and Native American students and English language learners — groups that comprise the majority of New Mexico's public school students.

According to data provided by the agency, more than a third of the state's nearly 317,000 students are from low-income households and 10.4 percent are Native American. About 56,000 students across the state are learning English, and a similar number are enrolled in special education programs.

The department is juggling two other court orders centered on education equity. A 2020 ruling found the state's school capital improvement system unconstitutional, and a 2021 decision connected to Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico required the state to provide students with appropriate technology for online learning if their families lacked it.

Achievement levels for students represented in Yazzie/Martinez vary, Steinhaus told lawmakers. Although graduation rates have increased in recent years, low-income students remain less likely to graduate than their peers. And according to state testing of students in grades 3-8, the rate of students showing proficiency at high-achieving schools is about 27 percent for low-income students, 22 percent for Native students, 16 percent for English-language learners and 15 percent for students with disabilities.

"They are low, and that's where we are," Steinhaus said. "It's time for us to admit that that's our starting point and we have a long way to go."

Steinhaus is requesting $17 million to support attendance success programs, $6.5 million for behavioral health support and $4 million to keep kids with disabilities in school.

"If you can't get the kids to school, we're not going to be able to improve on graduation rates and achievement," Steinhaus said.

To address student achievement, Steinhaus seeks a $23 million allocation for early literacy and reading support and math initiatives, including teacher training and additional literacy coaches. The department also hopes for a boost of nearly $33 million to update instructional materials, with a focus on materials with cultural relevance.

Steinhaus' budget request includes more than $33 million to enhance services for special education students and an additional $4.6 million to train staff to work with disabled students.

He also is seeking significant funding for career technical education courses, which he said makes vulnerable students excited about coming to school and offers insight into possible career paths. The proposed allocations include $60 million to construct, renovate or stock career technical education classrooms and $15 million for so-called "next generation" initiatives, such as career-based student organizations and paid work-based learning opportunities.

State Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, said she appreciated the agency's focus on leveraging strengths in New Mexico's education system for the benefit of all students.

"I am sick and tired of people endlessly talking about [New Mexico] being No. 50 [in education rankings]," she said. "What does it mean to be No. 50 when we have some of the best schools in the country, some of the best teachers in the country?"

She told Steinhaus, "I'm so grateful for your positivity because I think it's doable. I believe in it. It's why I ran for the Legislature."