NM lawmakers pass high dollar education legislation

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The House and Senate on Tuesday both overwhelmingly passed multimillion dollar education bills that are in large part an answer to the Yazzie Martinez funding lawsuit that found New Mexico was shortchanging at-risk students in violation of the state Constitution.

The nearly identical bills, which will now have to be reconciled in a committee from both chambers, put about $337 million toward raises for teachers and other educators, extend the school year by 25 days for up to 91,000 elementary school students and more than double dollars dedicated to those at-risk students: low-income, English language learners and Native American students.

“This bill is a once in a lifetime game-changer for all the students across the state. While many components of House Bill 5 address the requirements of the recent lawsuit, there are multiple dimensions that will have far reaching impact over decades to come,” House Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, a co-sponsor of the bill, exhorted forcefully as she called for a vote. “For example, by doubling the at-risk funding factor, schools will make important decisions that will fit their students to help them be successful.”

The bill passed that chamber successfully by 53-14. The Senate version of the bill passed unanimously on the Senate floor, 41-0.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, who shepherded Senate Bill 1 through the Senate, along with Sens. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, and Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, said another important factor in the bill was requiring more oversight from the Public Education Department.

“In part, this bill is an experiment,” Stewart said, in introducing the bill on the Senate floor. “All right, let’s give enough funding to really do the programs we know work, but let’s have the districts tell us how it’s working and how they’re using it.”

The bill also changed funding for charter schools and isolated rural schools. Those changes will be phased in over five years. The funding changes got much of the debate from Republican lawmakers who wanted to protect charters schools and sought assurance that it would not hurt schools that provide parents and students with alternatives to failing local public schools.

The companion bills represent a huge chunk of the education funding in the main budget bill working its way toward the governor’s desk. That bill, HB2, currently sits in the Senate Finance Committee. There is about $493 million of increased money for New Mexico’s public schools.

In both bills, the minimum salaries for teachers would be $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000 for three levels of experience, with administrator salaries tied to those pay tiers. In addition, teachers who already make over those minimums would receive a 6 percent raise, as would other educators such as principals, educational assistants, counselors, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

In an interview with NMID, newly confirmed Public Education Secretary Karen Trujillo called the education bills a “good foundation” for transforming education in New Mexico, citing the raises for educators, the expansion of K-5 Plus and more professional development for teachers. But she also said there was a lot more work to be done.

“Our response to this has to be a multi-year multi-level response, but it’s a good foundation,” Trujillo said. “When we look at it, it’s a four-year, eight-year plan. I mean, we’re not going to undo all the damage in one year. It’s taken generations to get where we are.”