New Mexico Schools Spending More, Achieving Less

Technology upgrades can get expensive for taxpayers.  In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the school board passed a $55 million Digital Learning Plan for infrastructure upgrades to integrate technology for teachers and students, and, at some point, to give personal computers to each of the 14,000 students in the Santa Fe district, says Rob Nikolewski, reporter for the New Mexico Watchdog.

It was only two years ago that Santa Fe citizens voted “yes” on a bond to spend $12.7 million per year for six years for technology upgrades. Of that figure, $2.4 million of that amount was to be used to buy students Apple computers, but to date that has not happened.  According to Carl Gruenler, chief business officer for Santa Fe Public Schools, the bulk of that money has gone to building maintenance, technology infrastructure, and equipment.   The chief business officer said that money went toward replacing old computers at the two Santa Fe high schools.  The entire technology budget may may reach $80 million over the next six years.

The Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd explained that the Digital Learning Plan had to be put in place because “that is what our children need”.  Steven Carrillo, school board president, defends the plan:

“I think it’s not only good, it’s essential if we’re going to provide technology for our children that most school districts have throughout the country,” Carrillo said.

Neal McCluskey, education analyst at the Cato Institute, says that he has seen no studies which support the notion that more technology leads to better educational outcomes.

Some have compared this move to the ill-fated Los Angeles Unified School District’s quagmire involving giving each of their 660,000 students an iPad.  The project ended in tech-savvy kids breaking through firewalls to access games and pornography. Boyd said that a comparison of Santa Fe public schools to Los Angeles Unified is not a fair assessment.

As a state, New Mexico is ranked 20th in per pupil spending, but was near the bottom ranking in student achievement among states in 2013, according to Jon Swedien of The Albuquerque Journal.  The National Education Association, one of America’s largest teacher unions, found that New Mexico was spending $81 more per student than the national average.  However, New Mexico’s fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tied with the District of Columbia for the lowest ranking in 2013.  The state’s fourth grade and eighth grade math scores were third from the bottom.

While officials say that the low scores are probably because of the number of students who are living in poverty, an New Mexico Public Education Department. (NMPED) spokesperson would  not use it as a crutch:

“While poverty can be a factor in student achievement, it should never be an excuse for low performance in our education system,” said Aimee Barabe, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Public Education Department. She added that next year’s state budget will increase education spending “5.75%t to a record high of $2.7 billion.”

Rep. Dennis Roch (R-Logan) says that using poverty as an excuse to spend more on education is a standard argument used by people who are asking for more funding.

Reasons cited for the low performance rankings of  New Mexican students include:

  • Poverty levels in New Mexico
  • Ethnic diversity
  • The rural nature of the state
  • “Wrap-around” services need in low-income schools (clinics, for example)
  • The need for increased per pupil spending
Meanwhile, New Mexico’s teachers are being evaluated for the first time this year, which the NMPED says will hold teachers and principals accountable.  Evaluations will be based on student test scores, classroom observation and attendance, among other factors as well.
Many teachers, some board members, and union representatives have found fault with the new grading system according to Nancy Laflin, reporting for KOAT, ABC’s Albuquerque affiliate.