‘Think’ report proposes a way toward better instruction

Over the years, my two daughters attended four different elementary schools in three states, while their middle and high school years were spent here in New Mexico.

Despite all our moving around, I think they’re no worse for the wear, as their success beyond their primary and secondary educations indicates. As for their old man, I think I gained some parental insight into what makes some schools better than others, including this: It’s the principals who turn schoolhouses into true facilities for learning.

Sure, it’s also the team he or she leads—the teachers, aides and support staff—but the principal sets the tone. School district administrators and decision-makers may try to create strong learning atmospheres by “investing” in their schools, but they must rely on the people in those schools to actually pull off great instruction. A principal’s character and determination, I think, trickles down to the teachers and makes the school what it is.

Moreover, I’ve noticed longevity can play a big role. If memory serves me correctly, my older daughter’s first school had a principal who had been there for nearly 20 years, and he ran a school that welcomed and encouraged parental involvement. He had teachers, at least in our experience, who were top notch. And while I don’t recall the school’s “rankings” in student performance assessments, I do remember it was widely considered an excellent school, and we loved our daughter’s home school.

Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan think thank that’s rooted in an office across the street from the state Roundhouse, has reinforced some of my notions in its latest report about the state’s public school system.

It’s no secret that New Mexico is ranked at or near the bottom in the nation when it comes to high school graduation rates and in reading and math proficiency, and those realities by themselves raise questions about the state’s approach to education. Plus, when you factor in spending per student and other indicators of educational excellence, as Think New Mexico’s report does, there’s even more reason to question whether we’re spending our education dollars in the right places. Think New Mexico takes on such questions, and comes away from some promising answers.

For one thing, the report points to high administrative costs. Only 57.2 percent of the state’s education budget is dedicated to actual instruction, earning us another in-the-cellar national ranking.

The answer isn’t to throw more money at these problems, but rather to spend our funds more effectively, and that’s what Think New Mexico is proposing. The report recommends that lawmakers pass legislation in the upcoming legislative session to establish minimum percentages that each school district must spend in its classrooms, based on a sliding scale that takes into account the size of the school district. “Classroom spending” criteria the report lists include instruction, instructional and student support, and salary increases for, you got it, the principals!

The think tank’s recommendations also include legislation to reduce reporting requirements—which in New Mexico is considerably higher than the norm—to reduce the workload that’s imposed on instructors and administrators, and to bring overall administrative expenses down to the national average. Think New Mexico has done the math; such reductions in administrative and reporting duties would save more than $100 million a year, money that could be funneled into more important efforts such as actual classroom instruction.

Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, and his staff must have been licking their wounds after the last couple of legislative sessions in which they tried unsuccessfully to get capital outlay reforms passed. Their recommendation to change the process in which infrastructure and other capital projects are funded struck at the heart of the antiquated pork-barrel approach lawmakers currently use, so it’s no wonder they hit political roadblocks along the way.

But don’t underestimate this group’s ability to get things done. Over the years, Think New Mexico has been successful in leading the charge for legislation to repeal the sales tax on food, make all-day kindergarten accessible to every New Mexico child and much, much more. They don’t just talk about the issues facing New Mexico, they lobby the state’s legislative halls and frequently get real reforms in place.

Watch for more about this school funding issue in the upcoming legislative session, which convenes Jan. 16. Legislation to get more of the state’s education dollars into the classroom may or may not be passed in the coming 30-day session but, at the very least, some seeds will be planted for meaningful changes down the road.

Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He may be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.