Teacher pay and other education priorities for legislative session

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Sylvia Ulloa

There’s one thing most New Mexico policy makers and advocates seem to agree on as we barrel toward the 2020 legislative session on Jan. 21: Despite boosting pay for teachers and other public school employees in 2019, they’re not finished yet. Where the difference comes is in how much of an increase is needed and sustainable.

Another easy observation? Education will be the key conversation at the Roundhouse, despite hot button additions like the “red flag” gun legislation Lujan Grisham proposed again Thursday in Las Cruces and the debate over legalizing recreational cannabis.

Last week the governor and the Legislative Finance Committee released their budget proposals. There’s not a lot of daylight between the two, though the LFC had a more modest spending plan and bucked Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham over how much to fund the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department. And rather than pay for her free college tuition program, the LFC would give the same amount to various scholarship funds for lower income New Mexicans and those pursuing high-demand fields such as education and health care. 

Nearly half of the governor’s proposed budget increases are in education. She’s seeking an additional $200.3 million for K-12 — about $30 million higher than a plan Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart pitched to the LFC in December. 

If you want to see a side-by-side comparison of some education proposals made over the last couple of months, check out this rough outline I compiled, which includes links to the proposals.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Lujan Grisham wants a 4% across-the-board raise for school employees. The Legislative Finance Committee proposes a 3% increase, and House Speaker Brian Egolf is going even bolder, saying he’s going to push for 10% raises, reported Dan McKay of the Albuquerque Journal. That’s in line with what teacher’s unions and the Transform Education New Mexico coalition that arose from the Yazzie Martinez education lawsuit are seeking. They want to take salary tiers up to $45,000, $55,000 and $65,000, with NEA-New Mexico also proposing a $15 minimum wage for all support staff. Transform supports those tiers, plus a 10% raise for others.

So, why the continued push for salary increases after New Mexico last year gave out raises of 6% and increased the minimum salaries for teachers to $41,000, $50,000 and $60,000 in the three experience levels? 

Policymakers point to New Mexico’s chronic educator shortage — 644 teachers across the state this school year, according to New Mexico State University’s 2019 Educator Vacancy Report. That’s a drop from last year’s 740 after the raises and the change in leadership at the PED. But it’s still not enough, some argue. Texas, a major competitor for the dwindling number of education graduates from New Mexico universities, also raised its teacher salaries last year.

And that teacher vacancy report might not show the true scope of the problem, according to data compiled for the LANL Foundation, which is in the midst of a study on the teacher shortage in north-central New Mexico. Look for more on that ahead.

While wages are a big part of the conversation, there are other philosophical differences over where New Mexico should go to improve its education outcomes for students, especially for Native American, English learners, special education and low-income students identified as being underserved by the public schools. 

I tuned into several LFC and Legislative Education Study Committee meetings to get a sense of what to expect during the session. 

Stakeholders such as teachers’ unions, superintendents, school boards and the state PTA associations didn’t have a specific budget number they wanted the state to hit, but they argued for funding that could be counted on for the long term. We should also expect to hear about better training and mentoring for new teachers to keep them in the profession and improve classroom learning. Restricting class sizes, paying for the true cost of transportation and investing in community schools is also on the wish list.

Transform Education New Mexico’s icon outlines its priorities for improving education for at-risk students.

Transform Education NM wants PED to go all-in on making education more culturally and linguistically relevant for its diverse student body. It wants $2.6 million to put financial muscle behind a bill passed last session to help Regional Educational Cooperatives — which consult with school districts and provide professional development — to train teachers on culturally relevant education. It wants all new teachers to have a bilingual or TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate. It’s pushing for a $36 million increase for multicultural education programs, compared with the governor’s request of $12 million. And when it comes to making education equitable for at-risk students, it’s asking for a bump in at-risk funding of $250 million, compared to $167 million budgeted by the Lujan Grisham administration, and to use Free and Reduced Lunch eligibility as the standard for classifying low-income students.

One last note, NMID has put the finishing touches on our annual Legislative Special Edition. If you subscribe to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Rio Grande Sun or the newspapers in Las Cruces, Farmington, Ruidoso, Alamogordo, Carlsbad, Deming or Silver City, you will find them in your papers Jan. 19, 22 or 23 depending on where you live and which paper you subscribe to. We’ll also be publishing the stories online so you’ll be prepared for what’s sure to be an interesting session. 

This article is reprinted from New Mexico In Depth’s weekly newsletter. You can subscribe for the weekly analysis and roundup of New Mexico news here.

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