Education Spending Up; Performance Stagnant

broken piggybank with dollar notes on white


During her campaign, Gov. Susana Martinez said that she would not cut education. Based on revised budget numbers that were released immediately after she was elected, that went out the window. Now, Martinez is proposing very modest cuts of 1.5 percent for K-12.

It didn’t take long for the unions and other supporters of more spending to draw lines in the sand. Albuquerque Federation of Teachers president Ellen Bernstein said “education can’t take any more cuts,” while Dr. Jose Armas of the Latino/Hispano Education Improvement Task Force recently wrote “Let’s dispel the myth that we’re throwing money at education. New Mexico has been steadily cutting education budgets for decades.”

Instead of being “cut to the bone,” however, New Mexico’s K-12 system has seen funding rise dramatically for the better part of two decades. A new study, “K-12 Spending in New Mexico: More Money, Few Results,” which relies on data from the United States Census Bureau’s annual “Public Education Finances” report, clearly shows that K-12 spending per-pupil has risen far-faster than the rate of inflation since the late 1990s.

Back during the 1994-1995 school year, New Mexico schools spent $4,100 per pupil annually. Quickly, that number started to rise at a rate that was far faster than inflation with both Gary Johnson and Bill Richardson approving ever-growing education budgets. By the 2007-2008 school year, the last year available, New Mexico was spending $9,068 per year, per-pupil, according to the Census. If per-pupil spending had grown at the same rate as inflation over that time period, we’d be spending less than $6,000 annually to educate that same student.

Education budgets have not grown as quickly during the past few years (for which the Census does not have data yet) as they did during the massive run-up of past few decades, but clearly, there is room for modest cuts.

Of course, the massive increase in spending might lead the tax paying reader to wonder what they got for all of that money. The answer, quite simply is, “not much.” In 1997, according to a report called “Graduation by the Numbers,” New Mexico graduated 56.3 percent of its students. By 2007, that number had actually declined to 54.9 percent. Also, over that time period, New Mexico remained mired at the very bottom of the National Assessment of Educational Progress where it remains today.

Obviously, higher spending alone is not going to achieve better results. Real reforms and accountability are needed in order to boost results.

Gov. Martinez has embraced “The Florida Model” which includes a variety of reforms now being considered in the Legislature. She even looked to Florida to hire Hanna Skandera to head up the Public Education Department.

Other specific reforms proposed by Gov. Martinez include grading schools on an “A-F” score, halting social promotion, and focusing a greater percentage of education resources on the classroom instead of bureaucracies and fancy buildings. If implemented correctly, these ideas will go a long way towards raising New Mexico’s poor K-12 performance.

And, although they were not specifically outlined in the Governor’s initial reform proposals, parents and students must have educational options. This should include strengthening and demanding accountability from charter schools, the adoption of educational tax credits to create real choice beyond the government system, and expansion of virtual schooling options.

These and other reforms, not more money, are the keys to improving educational attainment in New Mexico. If cuts are needed in the short-term as part of the effort to close the current budget hole, the schools should do their part. Until dramatic reforms are undertaken, more money won’t save a failing system.


Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.