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Senator touts proposed education spending, green schoolyards

When New Mexico voters go to the polls on Nov. 8, they will consider a proposed state constitutional amendment — in the works for years — that would authorize significant funding increases for public schools and early childhood education. 

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, who is shepherding an amendment to the state's federal enabling act through the Senate which, along with the U.S. House, must consent to the constitutional amendment, visited Enos Garcia Elementary School last Thursday (Oct. 6) to promote the proposed amendment. Simultaneously, Heinrich joined several Taos Municipal Schools District officials, educators and young students to highlight the benefits of robust outdoor education programs and promote proposed federal legislation that would enable schools to improve schoolyards and expand outdoor learning.   

Constitutional Amendment 1 

Constitutional Amendment 1 is among three proposed amendments to the state constitution that voters will decide on the statewide ballot in November. If approved, it would allocate an additional 1.25 percent annual distribution from the state's Land Grant Permanent Fund, revenue for which is derived from land leases and oil and gas industry fees and royalties. Thanks to booming Permian Basin petroleum production in southeast New Mexico, the fund has grown significantly over the past five years. State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richards announced at the beginning of this month that her office had brought in a record $2.4 billion in revenue in the fiscal year that ended June 30. 

Based on Permanent Land Grant Fund's current, $25.5 billion balance, the 1.25 percent funding increase would increase education spending by at least $245.7 million each year. About 60 percent of the additional allocation, or an estimated $126.9 million per year, would go to early childhood education, while 40 percent would go to public education. 

“Too many children in New Mexico are showing up to kindergarten so far behind their classmates that they can’t catch up," said Heinrich who, along with U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, introduced the federal New Mexico Education Enhancement Act in December of last year. "We need to level the playing field for our kids, especially in their earliest years, if we want to set all of them up with a strong foundation for long-term academic and career success."

While it proposes to increase funding for early childhood programs administered by the state Early Childhood Education and Care Department, which was created in 2019, the proposed constitutional amendment also fundamentally seeks to address pandemic-related learning loss and unresolved issues identified in the historic Yazzie-Martinez legal settlement. The Martinez and Yazzie v. New Mexico decision found that a lack of school funding and resources in impoverished school districts is not an excuse for inequality in education. The court ordered all public schools to offer students equal learning opportunities regardless of race, language, income level or disability.

District 6 state Sen. Bobby Gonzales told the Taos News that the increased funding will help pay for extended K-12 learning times, higher teacher and staff pay, more counselors and enhanced instruction for at-risk students.

"This definitely will help with the funding to address the Martinez-Yazzie decree that we have in place," he said. "And one of the biggest factors to this, which seems to be a consensus with the educators, is the [need for] flexible extended learning time beyond the regular school calendar year. The average schedule for a district right now is 181 days. This will allow districts to go up to 220-250 days, and have the funding to pay for those days, to cover staff and programs.

"It's not a tax increase, there's no burden on taxpayers," Gonzales added. "This is a win-win for New Mexico. Within five years, we should really start seeing a big difference in our education program."

Living schoolyards 

Earlier this month, Heinrich introduced the "Living Schoolyards Act," federal legislation that would create the Outdoor Learning Spaces Grants Program, funds that schools like Enos Garcia could use "to install canopies, tents, open-sided structures, electricity, generators, furniture, storage, Wi-Fi nodes and charging stations, outdoor food and distribution facilities, gardens, and weather-related clothing," for example, to enhance and improve outdoor education. 

Administered by the U.S. Department of Education, the grant program would allow schools or school districts to create outdoor classrooms and learning spaces while greening up schoolyards. Enos Garcia is a prime example of the Taos district's agricultural-learning initiative, which has established student gardens on nearly every campus, has more green space than many typical public schools — including the elementary school Heinrich attended. If passed, the Living Schoolyards Act will fund projects and staffing within school districts through a two-step process of planning grants and implementation grants. 

"I had a chance to go back to my old elementary school a number of years ago, and I'd just forgotten how the entire playground was covered in concrete and asphalt," Heinrich said. "What an unfriendly environment. How we ever got through on those merry-go-rounds without everyone having a broken arm is amazing." 

Standing in the shade of several trees on a back corner of the Enos Garcia campus, surrounded by freshly harvested pumpkins and a class of excited third-grade students, Heinrich said, "This is the way it should be. We should be designing our school spaces thoughtfully, so that they're enriching, supporting local pollinators and food" production.  

Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, said the movement to transform concrete and asphalt schoolyards to green spaces represents "a paradigm shift" that's long overdue. The new paradigm, fully embraced by Enos Garcia, fosters green spaces for plants, trees and "edible gardens," as well as outdoor academic learning.

"School grounds across the United States play a central role in children's lives, and shape their perspective of the world around them," she said. "Right now, nearly 50 million students attend America's public schools on campuses that occupy an estimated 2 million acres. These are some of our most heavily used and chronically underfunded public lands."

Danks said that by transforming barren schoolyards into reliable green spaces, public school campuses become more connected to surrounding communities.

"Living schoolyards support schools and districts, improve ecological- and climate-resilience, reduce the urban heat island effect, capture carbon, decrease energy consumption to school buildings that are adjacent to the green space and they diversify the activities that kids can do," Danks said. "And research shows that kids who spend time in nature have improved academic performance and increased attention span and environmental literacy."

Enos Garcia Principal Sarah Bradley told the Taos News that green spaces that enable outdoor learning are fundamental to student learning at the school.

"We have our two gardens, and a couple of spaces where we've put these picnic tabes, and if a teacher has an activity that's suited for outside, they'll do an instructional activity there," Bradley said. "It's a change of scenery; it's energizing and it stimulates their thinking to move locations and be outside in the fresh air," Bradley said.