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AZTEC – Early one morning students in Joel Barton’s 12th grade government class at Aztec High School were already hard at work researching various bills proposed in this year’s state legislative session.

Along with high profile legislation revolving around guns and marijuana, it was hard not to notice that a lot of legislation had to do with the state’s public education system, something very familiar to Barton’s senior class.

“I’m thankful for a free education,” said Aztec High School senior Savana Lesscher, “but it’s not equal across the state.”

Lesscher talked about friends and family members in other schools around San Juan County and schools on the Navajo Nation having unequal educational and extracurricular supplies, and how students at her own school who are not “outstanding” academically, are often left behind.         

These observations are reflected in 2018’s Yazzie vs. the State of New Mexico lawsuit, which ruled that the state was unconstitutionally under funding the education of Native American, special needs, English learners and low-income students.     

In her State of the State Address Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham referred to her administration’s push to reform and improve the state’s public education system as “a moral mandate,” and further referred to herself and the state’s assembled Legislature as “destined to deliver the single best cradle-to-career educational system in the country.”

An important part of the governor’s push for educational improvement is House Bill 14, or, “The Opportunity Scholarship,” a legislation that has yet to be presented to the legislature, which, if passed, will create a 35-million-dollar state fund to provide graduating high school and continuing education students who are state residents with money to pay for in state public colleges, universities, and community colleges’ tuition after those students have already applied for and gotten funds from other scholarships and federal financial aid, like Pell Grants.    

The Opportunity Scholarship is meant to work in tandem with the state’s Lottery Scholarship, which covers between 60 to 75 percent of tuition for approximately 16 percent of public higher education students in New Mexico, which would, in theory, make public higher education tuition free for New Mexican students.  

“It would be extremely helpful to not have to find the money to pay for college,” said Ashlynn Smith, another 12th grader in Mr. Barton’s class at Aztec High School.  

After looking at out-of-state colleges, Smith, with advice from her parents, decided to stay in the area and attend San Juan College’s nursing program. If the Opportunity Scholarship passes, Smith is open to looking at other nursing programs at other public universities in the state.       

Cole Carter, another student in Bolton’s class, is planning to either go to the University of New Mexico, or the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology for both cinematography and astrophysics.

Carter, like a lot of students, is worried most about taking on student loans to pay for both college tuition and expenses like transportation, food and housing.  

“Limiting that [student debt], is my main goal,” Carter said.

More than 218,000 New Mexicans are currently paying back an estimated $7 billion in loans taken out to pay their college education.

A hearing brief presented by the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee on Jan. 20, 2020 criticized the governor’s proposed Opportunity Scholarship as ineffective in supporting lower and middle income students who struggle most with the cost of those miscellaneous “cost of attendance” things like books, transportation, housing and food, which many students take out student loans to cover.

The brief goes on to report that students in the state have the third highest rate of defaulting on federal student loans in the entire country, behind Nevada and Mississippi.  

The brief makes a distinction between “first dollar” scholarships, like the Lottery Scholarship, where money is provided to students before they have to look for other scholarships or financial aid, and “last dollar” scholarships, where students have to exhaust their available scholarships and grants before they can take advantage of the scholarship.    

Instead of funding the Opportunity Scholarship, the brief supports increasing state investments in “first dollar” scholarships, like the Lottery Scholarship, and targeting more aid to low-income students.

In her State of the State Address, Lujan Grisham referred to the Opportunity Scholarship as “a sustainable investment in the bridge we must build between our classrooms and our workforce,” and as a way to keep college educated young adults in the state to build their careers, and the state’s economy, something that is not lost on seniors at Aztec High School.

Even though Cole Carter is planning to go to a public college in the state, he can’t see himself staying in New Mexico after college.

“Economically, this place is in a bad way,” Carter said.

“I do think New Mexico is really nice,” Savana Lesscher said. Lesscher is planning to go to either UNM or New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, which she said will allow her the time to figure out what she wants to major in.

“When I’m visiting my family in the state, I think, this is great. This is beautiful…. It just doesn’t seem to be an awful place to be.”

Sam Ribakoff is a visual journalist for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 or via email at sribakoff@daily-times.com.

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