Lawmakers point state to new educational future

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Young children listen to a teacher as part of the summer K-3 Plus program.

It was a good year for education. Whether it was great depended on who you asked.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders, both Democratic and Republican, extoled investments New Mexico made in education Saturday as the 60-day session came to a close.

“This is a Legislature that delivered a moonshot,” the governor nearly shouted during a post-session press conference in her Cabinet Room on the fourth floor of the Roundhouse.

State lawmakers pumped an additional $500 million into the public schools budget and created a new early education department. Teachers and school administrators received a salary increase. And money for early childhood programs got a boost.

But bills that emphasized multicultural, bilingual education and strengthened the community school model – ideas that some lawmakers and education advocates consider transformational – seemed destined to die, stuck in legislative committees.

Then in the final hours of the 2019 legislative session, two of them were pulled from certain death and placed on the Senate floor Saturday morning.

The Multicultural Education Framework, a centerpiece of the Transform Education NM coalition of Yazzie Martinez education lawsuit plaintiffs and community advocates, was defeated, going down on a 14-22 vote, with seven Democrats voting against the bill.

In contrast, a bill that strengthens the community school model cleared the Senate after contentious debate on a bipartisan vote of 24-15 and and is headed to Lujan Grisham’s desk. A priority of the governor, the community school model provides social supports for struggling students and makes schools a community hub.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, a retired teacher who chairs the Legislative Education Study Committee, put up a spirited defense of the legislation.

The community schools idea had been long studied by the LESC, she said.  “This is what we have to do at the end of the session for important bills, and this is an important bill.”

There wasn’t the same level of support in the Senate for the multicultural bill.

Stewart told NM In Depth one reason lawmakers might have opposed it was that it adds bureaucracy to an agency that already has the positions, statutes and structures it needs in place.  “That was their argument, why set up more when we already have it,” she said.

Stewart said despite the bill’s failure she was confident its aims would be carried out thanks to increased educational funding and the leadership of PED Secretary Karen Trujillo.

But advocates say without enshrining that multicultural framework in state law,  future administration might not prioritize the goals of multicultural and bilingual education.  

Karen Trujillo, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pick for secretary of public education, speaks during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in Santa Fe.

Big Changes for K-12

Where to start?

The most obvious place is an omnibus education bill. This is where most of the money and most sweeping changes were made to the public education system during the 60-day session.

The headliner is raises, with a floor set for teacher pay in the three experience tiers to $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000. The budget bill also calls for a 6 percent raise for all educators from the principal on down to the cafeteria staff.

But there was a lot more, including a guarantee of funding for 98,000 elementary students to take part in an expanded school year. The new K-5 Plus program adds 25 school days to the year for students from Kindergarten to grade 5. The program was formerly for grades K-3 and was a grant program with discretion from the PED. Stewart said one of the most important accomplishments of the session was to “fully fund one of the best programs we’ve ever put in place, K-5 plus.”

There is also expanded learning time and 80 hours of professional development for teachers for those districts that want to participate.

Another big change that specifically addresses the Yazzie Martinez education lawsuit was a bump of $113.2 million in funding for school districts and charter schools that serve a high number of at-risk students.

And while school districts will still have discretion on how they use money from the per-pupil funding formula, they will now have to explain how they use dollars for at-risk students, classroom time, new-teacher mentoring, and carry out the Indian Education Act, Bilingual Multicultural Education Act and Hispanic Education Act in their annual budgets.

Judge Sarah Singleton, who ruled last year that New Mexico was violating its own constitution by not sufficiently educating at-risk, low-income and Native American students  pointed to the poor or nonexistent monitoring of programs by PED in her findings of fact in the Yazzie Martinez case.

Retired District Judge Sarah Singleton. She ruled in the landmark Yazzie Martinez vs. State of New Mexico education lawsuit.

Early childhood

While the Legislature embraced fully funding the K-5 Plus program, it continued a cautious approach to funding early childhood programs for children ages 0-4. With the billion dollar surplus, early childhood programs did get a bump of about $35.6 million, but that’s squarely within the incrementalist approach the Legislature has taken since it began to embrace the benefits of these programs.

An effort to tap the Land Grant Permanent Fund to fund those programs passed the House but was shut down, once again, in the state Senate. Advocates question why senators are dragging their heels in providing funding for programs that the state’s youngest children need. A last-ditch effort by Lujan Grisham got her the hearing before the Senate Finance Committee she wanted, the first time that powerful committee has debated the idea.

But some powerful senators continue to oppose taking more from a fund that they see as the future funding source for state programs. Others say the school infrastructure and trained teacher workforce simply isn’t there to funnel so much money into it yet. The new state agency focused on early education is seen by some as a key way to solving those capacity issues.

Lujan Grisham has already signed  into law the new Department of Early Childhood Education and Care, which will corral all programs serving children from birth to age 5 into one department. That includes child care licensing and assistance, private provider and public school preK, home visiting, mental health and other programs.

On her lap as she signed the bill was her granddaughter, Avery.

“This is personal,” Lujan Grisham said about making the department a reality. “A lot of bills, we’re problem solvers, but these are personal to us and our families. That’s why my granddaughter is here.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham with her granddaughter, Avery, at a bill signing creating a new Early Childhood department. Photo credit: Trip Jennings.

The department is one of the key pieces to making Lujan Grisham’s campaign promise of universal preschool a reality, and it’s part of her “moonshot” on education. Among its charges, the new department will work on developing a workforce strategy for early childhood educators, maximize federal dollars for early childhood programs and eliminate the duplication of services that in recent years has caused New Mexico to send back millions in Head Start money to the federal government and replace it with state spending.

But wait, there’s more

Some education measures flew under the radar, but are interesting. Three would bring back “shop,” classes that provide career and technical training in high schools:

  • A seven-year, $3 million pilot project was approved to strengthen high-quality programs that give workforce training to students who might not want to go to college, or as a precursor to college or other training. Strong vocational programs are a marker of high-performing school systems around the world, but have been cut back in the push for college prep in the United States. Studies have found classes in fields like automotive and culinary arts keep students in school who might otherwise quit and get them ready for the workforce. The Association for Career and Technical Education reported that in 2015, New Mexico had nearly 60,000 high school students participating in CTE programs, with an 89 percent graduation rate. That same year, only 69 percent of students statewide graduated.
  • A companion bill already signed by the governor directs the PED to train teachers in career and technical education. Career classes are more sophisticated than the auto shop and woodworking of old. The bill requires the PED to coordinate with the Workforce Solutions Department and the Higher Education Department on the programs. Classes will also have to meet current academic standards for language arts, math and science, but use a project-based learning model.
  • The final bill allows qualified technical education classes to take the place of one unit each of English, math and science.

Other bills addressed a multitude of issues. There were bills that require the PED to change how schools, teachers and administrators are evaluated. These bills are not strictly necessary because the governor and new PED secretary already planned to change the controversial and disliked teacher evaluation system and A-F school grading, but putting them in statutes makes it harder for a new administration to change.

With school shooting still top of mind for many parents and legislators — a school shooting incident happened at a Rio Rancho high school the same day as a vote on background checks for gun purchases — there were several bills aimed at school safety.

The most controversial was one that would require training for armed school security personnel who are not licensed school resource officers and gives local school boards or charter school governing boards the power to decide who can be armed. It passed after a conference between the Senate and House.

Republican Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho passed bills that require schools to have evacuation, shelter in place and active shooter drills at least four times per year and that made it more attractive for retired law enforcement to become school security personnel. Democratic Sen. Bill Soules won passage of an anti-bullying bill that would require all school districts to put in place bullying prevention policies.

Another lack that legislators addressed was New Mexico’s teacher shortage. The College of Education Affordability Act puts $25 million toward scholarship and loan programs for students pursuing degrees in education. And a bill that helps educational assistants who want to become teachers with loans and time off from work to study also passed.