Friday, August 15, 2014

Daily KOS: New Mexico Education Scandal

First, Just A Quick Note About New Mexico ALEC
Think of it as making weekly, over due, 
dentist payments...for an endless toothache.

Frequent visitors to MeanMesa are quite aware that there is "little love lost" between this blog and the New Mexico infestation of the national American Legislative Exchange Council -- ALEC. More traditional media, even those generally opposed to ALEC's state level machinations, are apparently reluctant to "really just let go" when it comes time for "clearing the air."

For example, we can consider the local "newspaper" in Albuquerque, the tragic, tattered remains of what was, at one time, apparently, an actual newspaper. The Albuquerque Journal has always remained suspiciously silent on the topic of ALEC. This shouldn't surprise anyone who has had the misfortune of accidentally picking up the rag, no doubt thinking it might be a good fit for the bottom of a parakeet cage. The Journal is famous for publishing right wing op-eds on its front page as if they were news.

Well, relax. MeanMesa isn't nearly as reluctant as the Journal to post on this topic, and, although this post is primarily about some financial shenanigans being pulled by the sold out Martinez administration, just about any time "financial shenanigans" begin to emerge from Santa Fe, it's almost a sure bet that somewhere down the line the cash will, sooner or later, begin to dance to an ALEC tune.

ALEC titles itself an "exchange" council, but that seemingly reasonable description is about as misleading as the rest of what ALEC is and what ALEC does.  NM ALEC is populated by Republicans. There might be a heavily soiled Democrat or two in the mix, but they would only be there if, as they say, "the price was right." In that case, they would fit into the crowd just swimmingly because that is precisely the reason the Republicans are there.

The ALEC Republicans are bold faced looters. The particular loot causing them to salivate so much in this case is the part of the State of New Mexico legislative education budget which is intended to pay for special education. These ALEC looters don't arrive in 1920's phaetons like Al Capone, or suddenly appear on the horizon like the Dark Age army of Gustavus Adolphus. Instead, ALEC is far more likely to meet and greet sympathetic state legislators at one of its famously lavish, fully hosted "legislative affairs conventions."

This is where the "exchange" part of the American Legislative Exchange Council is "exchanged." In some distant think tank bunker -- long before the "convention" even begins -- the oligarchs have ordered their minions to prepare "proposed legislation," that is, to prepare fully complete legislative "bills" which can be introduced effortlessly by the "sympathetic" state legislators who have become even more "sympathetic" amid all the wining and dining at the big ALEC "doin's," not to mention the theoretically unspoken promise of substantial campaign contributions.

ALEC is designed to be the "ultimate middle man." Corporations are understandably "gun shy" about visiting the Round House in the light of day, check books in hand, so ALEC handles the dirty work for them. After purchasing a nice clutch of promisingly cooperative state legislative Republicans, ALEC disappears from public sight. The "fix" is in. The anti-democracy rerouting of public funds is underway.

[MeanMesa has posted about ALEC NM before. ALEC NM - Anti-Democracy in the High Desert]

Introducing Albuquerque to 

For political junkies such as MeanMesa, Daily KOS merits an eager, daily visit. If you would like to visit the site yourself, just click on this link: You will find a truly refreshing treatment of many of the major news stories unfolding in the country. Although it presents an unabashedly liberal slant in its articles, you will enjoy both its editorial honesty and the thoughtful depth typically found in Daily KOS reporting.

MeanMesa suspects that most Americans have abandoned the alphabet networks by this time, and while this list may certainly begin with Murdoch's FOX, it now solidly includes ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and much of MSNBC. So far as the "informed electorate" goes, we're flying blind.

The excellent Daily KOS reporting which follows is presented in its entirety. While you read it, bear in mind these thoughts about ALEC and the twisted, tormented route the ALEC Republicans in the New Mexico state government seem to take as they wheedle away funds from the place where legislators thought they were putting them to somewhere else.

Think about precisely where that "somewhere else" might be on your way to the polls in November. At the moment, these pikers think that they're doing just great.

Daily KOS

WED MAY 21, 2014 AT 12:51 PM PDT

Susana Martinez' PED May Owe Districts 
Millions for Special Education

by Boogiemania

[Link to the original Daily KOS article  here.]

Monday night a crowd of worried teachers and parents converged on the APS administrative building in uptown Albuquerque. Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) Superintendent Winston Brooks had convened a special public forum to discuss the proposed APS response to a ruling that the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) violated federal law in 2011-2012 by reducing special education funding from 2009 levels. At the forum, attended by other superintendents and legislators (but notably no state employees), Brooks revealed his plan to ask Arnie Duncan to require the state to create a payment plan to reimburse all the school districts that have been meeting their obligations to special education students. (PDF of APS presentation)

The metaphorical milk has been spilled in more ways than one. On May 8, Judge O'Hair ruled that the PED's argument had no merit, and the state would lose $34.12 million dollars in federal funding, an equivalent amount to the appropriation the state should have made in that year. This is only the beginning of the story; the state has continued to fund special education at the lower levels, despite repeated warnings about losing federal education subsidies. Indeed, the loss of subsidies is non-negotiable; the law is clear that no alternative is permitted.

Federal law on Maintenance of Effort (MOE) is pretty simple (click images for full size). The state must appropriate funds for special education equal to or more than the funds spent the previous fiscal year. Local school districts must spend funds on special education equal to or more than what was spent the previous year. APS and several other districts in New Mexico have kept their side of the bargain—keeping special education funding—mostly by dipping into the general education fund. During the year in question that meant that all Albuquerque students in the system were shorted about $8.8 million (and indeed APS lost hundreds of jobs during this time).

Gutting Special Needs Education - the timeline [image source]
[Take a moment to expand this chart in a new window and take a close look. The story told here is worth knowing.]

The unacknowledged truth (hinted at during the public forum) is that Governor Martinez—and her unconfirmed Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera—dropped the ball administratively and don't want to acknowledge their mistake. Indeed, the state's response is to file a lawsuit against the government (draining away even more special education dollars in attorney's fees). The state PED started cutting special education funding in response to the recession, and the Department of Education granted a waiver for the first year, when the state was in a desperate cash crunch. In subsequent years the economy has recovered somewhat, but Governor Susana Martinez's education department has continued to fund special education at lower levels, claiming that the year for which the waiver was granted should have set a new baseline.

Superintendent Brooks' sensible and creative response to what has become a chronic problem ("darn near criminal" according to one insider at the forum; "verging on malfeasance" according to another), is to ask Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan to force the state to pay the school districts back the millions they failed to appropriate. One activist parent, Katie Stone, recommended that they incorporate language to put the New Mexico PED under a corrective action plan, which won warm applause from the crowd, and will probably be included in the draft presented to the school board tonight for approval.

The legislators present, Representative Mimi Stewart and Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto, were quick to point out that they were the ones who had inadvertently discovered what PED was doing, and how many years this problem had gone unaddressed. They assured the crowd that the legislature is now fully aware of the issue and that the most recent budget had appropriated supplemental funds to meet MOE for last year and this year but that they ultimately fell far short of the underfunding.

Whether it was malice or neglect that caused this administrative failure, the most disabled children did not suffer the consequences. It's been the top 90% of students—and particularly the top 5%—who have felt the repercussions. Gifted students, who are part of the special education program under state law, have seen more barriers to entry and less reliable service. The reason became somewhat clearer at the meeting (although the APS people would not address this directly). Federal funds for special education are earmarked for students with disabilities so they counted toward MOE expenditures, but could not be used for gifted, so the district's solution has been to provide fewer services to fewer children (which may explain Governor Martinez' claim that the state doesn't have to spend so much money because the number of special education children needing services has dropped).

Other issues that were raised at the meeting hint at a broader tangle of problems at PED that needs to be unwound. Governor Martinez wants to see most of the money "below the line," meaning that her department has discretion over the expenditure of funds. The school districts and parents were vocal about wanting the funds "above the line," and earmarked for specific programs. One of the problems with tracking the MOE expenditures has been that education spending has become steadily less transparent under Martinez' administration.

During her public comment period, Ms. Stone mentioned that the root of the education funding problem in New Mexico is the root of many other issues, including oil spills and nuclear leaks, namely that Governor Martinez has allowed employment vacancies to undermine the function of the government. Like the critically understaffed environment department, 50-75 positions in the PED go unfilled.

It's hard to see how Governor Martinez can equate the obstinate, ideological malfeasance of her education department with making educational achievement the cornerstone of her current gubernatorial campaign. Susana Martinez craves a national stage where she can trumpet her educational achievements and her conservative credentials. The special education funding fiasco is something she would like to see swept under the rug and tied up in endless appeals and arbitration until she is re-elected in November.

In trying to shortchange the most needy of our students, she ended up hurting the majority of students in the state, including the highest achieving. In trying to save money on the backs of disabled children, she is costing the state untold millions in fines and legal fees. Rather than taking responsibility for the actions of her administration, she is doubling down, going on the offensive—and still not funding special education at mandatory levels.

Tonight, the Albuquerque Board of Education will discuss the letter to Secretary Duncan and decide whether to press ahead with recovering funds for our students.

If you are an Albuquerque resident and read this story today, contact your school board member and ask them to support a repayment plan as well as a corrective action plan for PED.

If you are anywhere in New Mexico, contact your school board and ask them what their response is going to be. Contact your US Senators and Representatives to ask them to lean on Secretary Duncan. Write the press, tell your friends and let teachers know how much PED has been shortchanging them. The press has been reluctant to pick up on this story, so it's up to people who care about adequate funding for kids to make a stink.

Thu May 22, 2014 at 6:05 PM PT: Update: the final letter was approved by the board for everyone to sign and send to Arnie Duncan, including a new section regarding a corrective action plan.

Thanks to everyone who has supported this issue by spreading the word! Now we need to get our legislators to support the plan too!


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A Final Note

Trying to influence the legislative action in the Round House can be a tricky business. A few of us may be "connected" to NM State legislators willing to stand up to this sort of business, and there are, actually, Representatives and Senators in Santa Fe who might be inclined to act in the public interest on such matters, but MeanMesa is saddened to concede that these men and women will comprise only a minority.
In a State already crippled by the crushing poverty of the 2008 Great Republican Recession resources for the legislative budget are tight amid what is now widely considered to be a "double dip" impact. However, these factors do not present an excuse for subverting lawful allocations of resources for public education.
If we can't find the money for public education, it's already past time to figure out why.
The special needs requirements are not discretionary spending. The NM plan to handle this part of the education funding has threads running to the Federal Department of Education. Eliminating this Department is one of the favorites of the drooling right wingers' "policy platforms" for "reducing the size of government and lowering taxes." [Read a sample  here.]
The budget for this part of the State's public education commitment is not to be left unattended for the ALEC GOP "schemers," although it appears that this is exactly where we are now.
While it is unlikely that the scam reported in the Daily KOS article can be stopped or even mitigated in the foreseeable future, just remember that the money which is NOT going to special needs education is still, in fact, GOING SOMEWHERE.

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