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Improving education

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By Optic Editorial Board

According to a new study by the National Education Association, New Mexico ranked 20th among states last year in total per-student education spending.

Factoring in federal, state and local funds, New Mexico spent $11,019 per K-12 student, $81 more than the national average, the Albuquerque Journal recently reported.

Despite spending more per student than 30 other states, New Mexico continues to rank near or at the bottom of several lists on student achievement. The question that we all should be asking ourselves right now is whether New Mexico is spending its education dollars in the right places.

The Journal’s story points out that New Mexico’s fourth-grade reading scores tied with the District of Columbia for the lowest ranking in the nation in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. New Mexico’s eighth-grade reading and fourth-grade math scores were third from the bottom.

Education officials point to our state’s poverty rate to explain the discrepancy.

The fact is that New Mexico has more children living in poverty than most other states, with 27 percent of school-age children living at or below the poverty line last year. The Journal also notes that 66 percent of New Mexico students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, which means they’re considered low income.

The state Public Education Department notes that next year’s budget will increase education spending by almost 6 percent.

We agree with Sen. John Arthur Smith, the vice chair of the Legislative Finance Committee, that while the increase in education spending is necessary, school districts need to become more efficient and cut down administrative costs.

But our guess is that the problem is deeper than inefficiencies in school districts.

Emerging research suggests than 90 percent of a child’s brain develops in the first three years of life, long before a child enters school. Poor nutrition during that pivotal period, parents’ failure to read to their children during those early years, and the failure to engage those children at an intellectual level during those first three years can all have a detrimental effect on a child’s brain development and on his ability to learn later in life. By the time those children enter kindergarten, they’re already behind, and getting them caught up to the children who did have good nutrition and who were intellectually engaged becomes an uphill battle.

So the question we should be asking ourselves is whether we’re spending enough to help children in those first three years.

The state currently dedicates lottery revenues to cover tuition costs for all New Mexico students who meet certain criteria. While the lottery scholarship program has been a good one, would those dollars be better spent on early childhood programs?

Those are the types of questions that state officials should be asking themselves if they truly want to reform New Mexico’s education system.