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Listening to the Voters: Education a hot topic

Hiding behind a scenic vision of mountains and blue skies, Sandoval County, New Mexico has one of the nation's worst education systems. Voters here say education - not the economy - could be the most important issue in the presidential election.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, graduation rates in the state are 48th in the country. 

In fact,  New Mexico ranks 49th overall for education,  according to CQ Press Education State Rankings. 

Residents we spoke with in this diverse county blamed many things, including budget cuts, English being a second language for many, and poverty.  

Long time residents Dee and Dana Hesse moved to Sandoval County 30 years ago from the Midwest. They were hoping for a bright academic future for their 11-year-old daughter, Emma, but have since been frustrated and disappointed in their school district. Dee told us, "Our schools are underfunded, our teachers are underpaid. Emma couldn't even bring home a textbook when she was sick for a week."

Once the economy started to decline, the Hesses say, the school Emma attended went downhill with it. "We have kids that can't read, can't write," Dee said. "I think it is time we get back to the basics with reading, writing, and arithmetic."

Though Dee is a Republication, she is not convinced that Governor Mitt Romney is the right choice for president. When asked who the best candidate is to improve the school system, she replied, "That is a good question."

Dee also told us school teachers in the district have been paying out of their own pockets for classroom supplies, and we found this was the norm across the entire county.

Margaret Ware for example, a recently retired schoolteacher in Rio Rancho, would spend up to $1500 of her own money on supplies each year because of the troubled economy. "If we continue to face a struggling economy and parents have to work, and can't be there for their children to provide what children need to come to school with, we lose and they lose," Ware said.

Similar to Dee Hesse, Ware's registered voting status may not determine how she actually votes in the upcoming presidential election. Though she is a registered Democrat, she told us she may find herself voting Republican, "I don't think Obama's approach to education has really considered small school districts, states like New Mexico," she said. "I don't know he is really in touch with a typical American school, a school like New Mexico has."

In addition to the struggling economy, residents also blame the poor education system on the language barrier that many students face. Across town in Bernalillo, the superintendent of Bernalillo's public school district, Allan Tapia, said English is a second language for many of the state's students.

"We serve a lot of Native American students," Tapia said. "Our students come from Pueblos and unfortunately those students enter the public school system not fluent in English."

Tapia is also calling for more funds to help after all the cuts they were forced to make.

"We  have seen a pretty drastic decrease in our budget,"  he said. "I am very worried about the children here, they are the future."

Jennifer Trujillo also believes that the broken economy is trickling down to affect the school kids. "Since the recession, there's been no funding," she said. "Classrooms are getting bigger, more demands."

Trujillo is a mother of three, a first grade teacher in the district, and head of the local teachers union. She faces the negative effects of the economy everyday, as she too spends hundreds of her own dollars on her classroom supplies. For this reason she feels particularly strongly about this issue, and has a message for the state:

"People that are in education that are at the state level, I think they need to come visit the classroom and really get down with us and see what really goes on."

Trujillo plans on voting for President Obama because she worries Mitt Romney will ruin her union.

To claim New Mexico's five electoral votes,  again, President Obama will need to ensure parents and educators, that in a state known as the Land of Enchantment, a bright future is within reach.