New Mexico has fallen back into last place in the annual ranking of childhood wellbeing, and there is one clear reason why, education.
The KIDS COUNT data book produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks states in four categories, Economic Wellbeing; Education; Health; and Family and Community. While the first category, which deals with poverty, has understandably received the most attention, it is in education we are farthest behind.
It’s not for a lack of trying. There are four sub-categories, one measuring effort and the other three measuring results. We rank 27th in access to Pre-K, but we’re 50th in fourth-grade reading proficiency, sixth-grade math proficiency and on-time high school graduations.
What is not clear, at least to me, is why.
Education has been a top priority for each of our last three governors.
Bill Richardson scrapped the old state School Board and created a new cabinet-level position for education, which he said would give him the authority needed to fix the problem. Susana Martinez attempted to increase accountability as determined by standardized test scores, but never had buy-in from the Legislature. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made Pre-K available to all New Mexico children and has created a new cabinet level department for early childhood education.
All three increased spending for education. The budget for state schools has climbed from just under $1.9 billion in fiscal year 2004 when Richardson took office, to $3.8 billion in the budget passed this year.
We have created a new three-tiered salary structure for teachers that both rewards and requires continued professional development. We have identified poor-performing schools and funneled additional resources to them. We have expanded the availability of charter schools.
Locally, the Las Cruces school district has started classes much earlier this year in an effort to reduce the learning loss that typically happens during a three-month summer vacation. That seemed a bit drastic at the time they announced it, but we clearly need to break out of old patterns.
I’ve spoken to enough local teachers, school administrators and students to know they are dedicated to spreading learning and knowledge and that there are some real examples of excellence in our classrooms.
I also know our schools have challenges with poverty and language that don’t exist in other states. And there are always questions as to the ability to gauge learning based on the results of one test.
Maybe I put too much stock in rankings and shouldn’t get myself so worked up every year. And there really isn’t that much difference between 49th and 50th. Other than now Mississippi is thanking God for us.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org