Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How Education Can Help Solve the Budget Shortfall

In New Mexico public schools the proportion of costs going to administration is the highest among all states. (see  Yes, the bloated school bureaucracy in New Mexico gobbles up fully $1274 per pupil each year on administration--13% of our per-pupil costs in 2015 of $9734.  This compares with administrative costs of only $400 per pupil in Utah (6% of per pupil costs of $6500) and $348 per pupil in Arizona, $629 per pupil in Colorado, and $485 per pupil in Texas.  Not a single one of our neighboring states spends even half of what we spend per pupil on administrative costs!

Let's dig a little deeper into the data to assess the bang for the education buck in New Mexico compared with other states.   The state with the lowest overall cost-per-student is Utah, at $6500.  Where does Utah rank among all states in K-12 student achievement?  13th, according to Education Week (  Where does New Mexico, which spends $3234 more per pupil, rank?  You guessed it, 49th!  Is there something wrong with this picture?  What about Arizona, which spends $2206 less per pupil than New Mexico?  Arizona ranks 25th in K-12 achievement, way ahead of New Mexico.  There are many other states that beat out New Mexico in student achievement while spending a lot less per pupil.  New Mexico simply isn't getting its money's worth in public education  Putting it differently, if New Mexico spent the same amount per pupil as Utah, we would save $1.1 Billion dollars per year!

If we were to cut administrative costs in half, to $637 per pupil, still higher than any of our neighboring states, we would save $215 million per year.  This would make a substantial contribution to filling in the current 2017 budget shortfall, and does anyone really believe cutting administrative costs down to normal in New Mexico would hurt our already-dismal student achievement?  Might even help!

If we were to take half of that money ($318.5 per pupil) saved and invest it,say, in higher salaries for teachers, our average teacher pay would go up to $50,285, moving New Mexico up from 47th to around 25th in the nation, slightly higher than the average salaries for teachers in our surrounding states.  That would make it easier to attract better teachers, and better students into becoming teachers, and still leave more than $100 million to cut into the shortfall.  Does the legislature have the political ganas (will) to cut this fat, or many other possible cuts out of the education budget, which would likely have little if any effect on student achievement?

In higher education, in spite of lower faculty salaries and lower costs of living, New Mexico appropriates fully $1865 more per full-time student than the national average, placing us in sixth place among all states.  (, Table 7).  Only Wyoming allocates a higher proportion of its budget to higher education.  Moreover, in the past five years total higher educational revenues per FTE in New Mexico have increased 24.9%, more than any other state in the nation.  In spite of this lavish spending, New Mexico ranks 47th among the states in the six-year graduation rate for a BA (, and for the first time in New Mexico history the older generation is better educated than the younger generation.  Every other state improved more than New Mexico in the proportion of the population holding a college degree.  If we were to reduce the appropriations New Mexico makes to higher education down to the national average, still way above Arizona and Utah, it would save New Mexico over $179 million per year. Add that to the $100 million left over after giving teachers a needed raise, and you get $279 million, which goes a long ways toward filling in the shortfall.  It is more difficult to measure higher education administrative fat, but judging from the outrageous salaries of many administrators, there is a lot that could be cut here, too.

There is nothing partisan about cutting fat out of the budget.  In a state doing as poorly as New Mexico has fared economically in the past few years, it only makes sense to use this downturn as an opportunity to create greater efficiency in the taxpayer dollars now lavishly doled out to public and higher education systems that are at the bottom of the barrel among states and that have resisted efforts to address seriously the quality of education in the state.

Monday, September 12, 2016

New Mexico as the Summer Ends

The winds of winter seem to be blowing in earlier this year.  Already the leaves are turning in the mountains of Northern New Mexico.  And as the coming fall always reminds us of the inevitability of change, it is hard not to read from the yellowing of the leaves a portent of hard times ahead.  

On the international front, the European project, so successful for the past 60 years in showing the world a cooperative, voluntary, and democratic  alternative to the nation state, is in trouble, at least temporarily, largely over botched immigration practice and nationalist economic policies.  The Middle East is undergoing a moment of abject horror (only intermittently covered by our mainstream news outlets) triggered by unwise policies by the powerful for short-term gain but long-term disaster that is just beginning to play itself out.  Both political parties were complicit in generating this mess, so the topic is taboo.  Global warming is beginning to look like it might be worse than political correctness allowed us to believe.  Global growth rates are slowing down in the rich countries, aggravating tensions between rich and poor as income inequality rises to unsustainable levels.  While these themes are playing themselves out, Russian leadership eagerly experiments with mischief at every opportunity in sometimes unexpected venues, including American politics.

In the U.S. presidential race, our dysfunctional political system provided us with two of the most unpopular and divisive candidates in recent history, raising serious doubts the winner will be able to govern, much less invoke the slightest drop of moral authority.  One primary candidate, Bernie Sanders--in an astonishing development that motivated greater enthusiasm from our youth than we've seen since the war in VietNam--placed the growing disparity between rich and the other 99% squarely on the political agenda, where it belongs, only to see it buried by the winning candidates in the now-normal gotcha game, so beloved by television producers, of proving each other, over and over, to be liars and hypocrites. Campaigns are no longer structured to bring out the best in oneself, imagining a better world, but to generate fear.  In mid-September, beneath the gotcha game, the presidential contest seems to be boiling down to dog-whistles (by both sides, to different audiences, two sides of the same coin) appealing to base fears about race and immigration, now that both campaigns have succeeded in convincing us beyond doubt that each candidate is a liar and a hypocrite.  On inauguration day most of us will feel only fear of what is to come from the White House.

In New Mexico the mood this year has been highly pessimistic; Joe Monahan has done the best job of describing the malaise that afflicts the political class, and the exodus of some of our most talented youth.  Part of this is due to the poor quality of performance at all levels:  in our educational institutions, which are unbelievably expensive in comparison to their performance at the bottom of the barrel of states; in our state government, in our business class.  Nobody seriously believes state government will do anything to revive the economy or, for that matter, do anything useful at all during the remainder--well over two years--of the current administration.  Our legislature almost certainly will continue to protect the most entrenched interests in the state.  Our business class, not exactly a paragon of creative entrepreneurship, keeps hoping Uncle Sam in Washington will come back with multi-billion dollar contracts for our defense industries to keep their customers growing.  But lately, our representatives in Congress don't seem to be bringing back the same amount of bacon as their predecessors.  New Mexico is beginning to look like Hobbs before the fracking started.

While all of this is true, I am not as pessimistic as most.  Just as things seem to be going bad, and getting worse, change tends to come.  The fruit must rot before the seed takes hold in the soil.  Paradigms shift.  My brother maintains a paradigm shift, a realignment, already occurred within the Republican Party at the national level.  Bubba simply doesn't believe a word of national Republican rhetoric, whether from Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan.  Trump simply stumbled in and took advantage of it.  While his solution--make the dog-whistle loudly audible to his fans--is not a successful strategy (the demographics are against it), the effect of Trump is likely to force a healthy restructuring of the long-term appeal of the Republican Party.  This would be healthy for a political system that is stuck at a broken level, unable to solve any national problems.  And unless the Democratic Party can channel into young people after roughing up Sanders in a dark alleyway, a realignment will take place there, too.

New Mexico needs a shift in paradigm.  The state is not functioning in anything that approximates a healthy state of being, and everyone seems to understand this.  Schools don't produce educated citizens; sectors of law enforcement are unaccountable; violent crime is on the rise; the economy isn't getting better; corruption is rampant and the judicial system doesn't seem to notice; and state government has been demoralized beyond belief by the past two administrations that did little to improve the state of affairs.  But just as we know the winter is coming and need to prepare for it, we also know Spring will follow.  Welcome the change:  it is overdue.