Interview with Amanda Aragon

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on the needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.

Marc is joined by NewMexicoKidsCAN’s Executive Director Amanda Aragon to celebrate and hear the backstory on a recent win to ensure that New Mexico’s children are receiving the nutrition they need. They also speak about the looming school budget crisis and why New Mexico’s schools are particularly at risk.


Marc Porter Magee: We are back with a new video interview and this week we get to talk to Amanda Aragon, who is the executive director of the NewMexicoKidsCAN. Before Amanda created NewMexicoKidsCAN, she was the director of strategic outreach at the New Mexico Department of Education. And she came over to 50CAN first as an education advocacy fellow to turn this idea into this vibrant campaign. Over the past two years, she’s emerged as a critical voice for kids in New Mexico. She’s run award-winning campaigns, and she is making a difference. So we’re excited to dig in with her. So thank you, Amanda, for joining.

Amanda Aragon: Oh, super excited to have the conversation. Thanks, Marc.

So I thought we could start by talking about the campaign that you were running before Covid-19 because I know that you were engaged on some really important issues and got a couple of big wins.

We did. So of our goals that we set out at the very beginning of the year to tackle, we saw two big ones so far, pre-Covid. The biggest was getting Senate Bill 96 passed, which is a school-level budget transparency piece of legislation, essentially mandating that the department create a really easy to use dashboard that any parent and a teacher and could access online, that shows the expenditures at the school level. The most important thing there is not necessarily the dashboard itself, but that we reconfigured the way that we do budgets in the state, so we can actually get school-level data, which wasn’t available the way that we did it before. So that’s a huge change for us, a big one. And then the second piece is we didn’t see any negative pieces of legislation cross the finish line as it related to charter school, so no charter school cap, no charter school moratorium. Big wins for our kids, for sure.

Yeah, that’s great. I know that was a big turnaround from what likely was happening as the year was unfolding.

Yeah. It’s true.

And you were also one of the first states to pivot quickly to the issues of this new reality. And I know one of the big issues that a lot of people were concerned about was: how do we get meals to kids who count on schools, being in a school building, to get proper nutrition? So maybe you could talk a little bit about how you tackled that, and what happened next.

Absolutely. I mean, to your point, it’s a huge issue for everyone, but it’s especially critical in New Mexico. So for those unfamiliar with New Mexico, 71% of our students are on free and reduced-price lunch, so that loss of access to food during the school day, both breakfast and lunch, has a monumental impact on our students. And while we were excited to see our school districts do the incredible work of lifting their food programs, so that breakfast and lunch could be picked up every day, we were really excited to work with the Public Education Department and see the application approved for the Pandemic EBT program.

So essentially, starting in the next couple of weeks, our families will be receiving direct funds to buy food for their kids, which limits the transition of transmission of Covid. And doesn’t necessarily put our frontline cafeteria workers at greater risk in handing out those meals, but also gives parents what they need to make sure that their children’s needs are met. So we’re really, really excited about that.

Yeah, it’s a great example of being able to innovate in a time of crisis. So, obviously, we heard about the food stops where people go and pick up food. We heard about the use of school buses to deliver food but to be able to actually get money directly in the hands of parents, and they can use that to buy food, which adds a lot more flexibility, I would imagine, to the process.

Yeah, and just reduces a lot of barriers that exist even when everyone is working their best to get that food in the hands of kids. There are still barriers, transportation barriers. A lot of our parents are still working, obviously. They have jobs that require them to still be at work. So it certainly just makes it easier for parents to deliver those needs to the kids.

So that was a great first win for kids. It’s May. I know there’s a lot more work to come. Maybe you could let us in on what you’re planning next for the summer and fall, work that you’re doing.

We’re going to continue work that we always set out to do this year, which is really core systems work. Making sure that everyone in the sector has access to the information they need to be responsive, so that’s things like high-quality statewide assessment. That’s things like school accountability dashboards and making sure they’re easy to understand and having some performance evaluation for educators.

We’ll keep working on that, but alongside that, we picked up three other goals in addition to the food goal that we got a win on. And those things are related to, one, working with the legislature to repurpose funding that was intended to be used for summer learning programs, that likely won’t be able to be run the traditional way. New Mexico has two programs, the Extended Learning Time Program and K-5 Plus. Both add either 10 or 25 days of instruction to the school year in the summer. We don’t expect those to be able to function the way they normally do, so what we’re asking is the department to reprioritize those funds in cooperation with the legislature, so we can use them for summer learning. Ideally, it would go to school districts in a grant to continue their continuous learning plan, which is what they’re running right now. If that doesn’t work, we’re asking the department to create a fund and just hire teachers on to serve as tutors for the summer, that students could be connected with and still receive some summer instruction. So that’s a really big one.

Another goal that we have is working with districts to have summer conferences with every parent. So that’s obviously probably going to be a resume or a conference call. But essentially, before the start of the school year, we want every parent contacted from their district and recapped some information. That information should be the last statewide assessment result we have on file for that child so, obviously, from last school year. Where they were? What that meant, any internal assessment results that were completed this year. So kind of recapping those two things and then working with a parent to say, “Okay, what does this mean for your child for the next school year?” What decision does the parent want to make? What resources are available for that student, and kind of creating that plan with the school and the parent before the school year even starts.

And then our third thing is something that we know a lot of our partners are working on, just closing the digital divide. We’re really urging the department to use some of the funding received from the federal government through the CARES Act to get devices in the hands of every low-income student across the state. So those are the things that we’ll be working on for the next six months, seven months.

That’s great. I’m sure that’s going to keep you busy. Those are– that’s your big goal. But I also know that looming above all that is this question of the fiscal health of your state, and what our school budget’s going to look like, come this fall. So maybe you could let us in on what you’re looking at right now, and how do you think you need to adapt to that environment where resources are going to be more scarce?

So the budget issue, again, an issue for every state for sure, a critical issue for New Mexico because not a lot of people know this, but we are very dependent on oil and gas revenues. In the state of New Mexico, they make up about 45% of our budget is revenue from the oil and gas industry. And if you’ve been following oil and gas markets, things are not good right now.

Our statewide budget was built on an assumption of $50 per barrel of oil. That means that we are looking at a $2 billion budget shortfall for this next year, and if $2 billion doesn’t sound like a lot, in New Mexico, our entire budget is only $7.6 billion. So this is huge for us.

We’re hearing a lot of mixed ideas about what that could look like across the K-12 system. Some are saying they want to hold K-12 harmless. I honestly don’t know how you do that. So we are trying to be a reasonable partner and say, “Yes, K-12 is going to have to be cut.” I think everything across the state is going to have to be cut.

We’re really trying to do a thorough job of looking at where those cuts could be made that would make the smallest impact to our students. So we really want to protect those funds that are used at the classroom level and look at those sorts of expenditures that could be cut more from the administration or outside of the school level. So working really hard to do that and prioritize funding for in-school instruction, summer instruction and really critical needs of the key parts of the education system.

I know it’s going to be a tough year, but it seems like a year where advocacy can really make the difference. So we are lucky to have you there.

The last thing I will say is there were a couple of expenses that were going to be additive this next year. I think that certainly is the easiest place to start. Those budget additions haven’t hit the system yet, so they’re probably the easiest to pull back.

That’s great. I know there’s going to be a lot of work through the summer and fall, and I’m sure a lot of new information to come as you work through this, and people are going to want to pay attention and learn alongside you. So what’s the best way for them to follow along?

So social media I think is the easiest way to get the most up-to-date information from NewMexicoKidsCAN. We’re on, I’ve been saying, everything but TikTok because I think I’m too old for TikTok. But Twitter, Instagram, Facebook all @nmkidscan.

And our email list is really helpful as well. So you can sign up for email at The one plug, extra plug I’ll make is on Facebook. When we’re dealing with nuanced issues or policy issues that require a little bit more of an explanation, I try and do those via Facebook Live video. So we have a pretty good backlog of videos that provide some context about state budget or things that made maybe don’t come across in a 140 character tweet.

Yeah, that’s great. I am a fan of your Facebook Live game. It’s impressive. I wish I had that myself. So thank you, Amanda, and good luck in the weeks and months ahead.

Thanks, Marc.


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