SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers are meeting starting Tuesday to craft the state budget, about half of which is expected to go to K-12 education.
Early proposals from key legislative committees and the governor put the total budget around $8.4 billion and the K-12 public school budget at about $3.8 billion, a 12% increase over last year.
A growing educational staffing crisis is taking center stage in that discussion, as New Mexico struggles to keep America’s oldest teacher workforce in the classroom, keep up with inflation, and compete with other states and private employers who are raising wages.
State leaders believe the funding increases including raises are possible, thanks to surging oil and gas revenue, and essential for filling government and public school positions. They also think it’s necessary, with unfilled teaching positions reaching around 1,000, and many more unfilled school worker positions. With 7% national inflation, and strong competition from the private sector, getting teachers and other workers to staff schools is a growing challenge.
Democrats hold the governor’s office and strong majorities in the state House and Senate, and their pending priorities are most likely to become law.
But Republicans want to restrict how race is taught in schools, ban vaccine mandates and pursue the long-standing priority of allowing parents to carry their child’s education funding from public schools to private schools.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and key legislative committees are in sync in proposing an increase in the minimum teacher salaries based on levels of certification. The goal is to make the state competitive with its neighbors, incentivize young people to join the profession and stem looming retirements.
Right now, starting teachers earn at least $41,000 and that would be raised to about $50,000, with mid-level teachers earning a minimum of $60,000 and master teachers about $70,000. For teachers affected by the minimums, the increases could reach 20%.
For teachers who already earn near those levels, a minimum 7% raise would be instituted. There’s a similar raise proposed for school staff members, from janitors to principals. Given the inflation rate, it wouldn’t amount to an increase in buying power.
Lawmakers are proposing many other ways to add teachers.
“We are putting money into our teacher loan repayment, scholarships and (the Grow Your Own Teachers Act),” said Senate President Mimi Stewart.
Stewart and Lujan Grisham also support a plan to pay Indigenous language arts and culture teachers the same as starting teachers. For years, they’ve been paid as education assistants, with salaries as low as $14,000. But if the proposal is adopted, their language teaching certification, approved by tribal authorities, would count toward compensation.
In New Mexico’s largest school district, Albuquerque, there were 742 staff vacancies as of Friday. Only 225 had “teacher” in the title, with food and maintenance worker vacancies taking up much of the list. Teaching assistants are also in short supply, and many are covering for teacher shortages, with a teaching workload and without commensurate pay.
There’s a proposal to set a minimum wage for school workers at just over $13 an hour, which could be competitive in rural areas but less so in cities such as Albuquerque. Some lawmakers are calling for a $15 minimum wage, which Lujan Grisham has endorsed for state workers, but hasn’t for school workers.
Across the board, raises could hit some snags. In Las Cruces, for example, increased money could end up in the hands of contractors without reaching drivers because of their contract structure. Drivers in that city went on strike this fall, making students miss an increasingly rare day of in-person learning.
A court found in 2018 that students who are low income, Native American, English language learners and disabled – about 70% of all K-12 students – aren’t being offered an adequate education, which is guaranteed in the state constitution.
The court identified areas where the state needed to improve education but didn’t prescribe exactly how to fix the problems in the Martinez-Yazzie education lawsuit, named after Hispanic and Native American mothers of plaintiff students.
Heading into the final year of her first term, Lujan Grisham hasn’t released a plan to address the ruling or negotiated with the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Without a plan from the courts or the governor, the Legislature doesn’t know what it can fund in order to resolve the lawsuit.
The lawsuit placed the responsibility for closing the education divide on the Legislature and governor, but public school districts still wield most of the power over how schools are run. State lawmakers broadly agree that students need more days in class to close the learning gap between more and less economically privileged students.
The urgency for extra learning has only increased during the pandemic, which by all available data indicates that students fell even further behind, in a state that regularly places last in measures of academic proficiency among K-12 students.
But more school days mean shorter summers. And that hasn’t gotten support from teachers or the most vocal parents, who tend to show up at school board meetings. Last year, superintendents and school boards rejected tens of millions in state funding for extra days, bending to local pressure.
Proposals from lawmakers this month suggest a new approach, offering the perks of an extra-days program, with fewer restrictions. For example, schools might be able to offer more instruction hours during the school year instead of lengthening it.
“It is the belief of the executive and I think ... the Legislature that we have learned from COVID and also from reviewing the research that we need more time with students engaged with their teachers,” education secretary Kurt Steinhaus told a legislative committee Friday.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.