April 4, 2003
Richardson Signs Massive Education Reform Package
By Leslie Hoffman
The Associated Press
A major education reform package backed by business leaders was signed into law Friday by Gov. Bill Richardson.
Richardson signed the legislation at Rio Grande High School in Albuquerque flanked by lawmakers, teachers, students, parents and school administrators.
The legislation covers everything from higher pay for teachers to greater access to full-day kindergarten.
The bills "represent comprehensive reform that students, teachers and parents of New Mexico expect and deserve," the governor said.
The centerpiece is a new three-level, competency-based licensing system for teachers and a minimum salary plan linked to the new licensing. Entry-level teachers, for example, will be required to pass a test to help demonstrate their competency.
The plan sets a base salary for teachers of $30,000, starting with the 2003-04 school year.
Second-level teachers eventually will make $40,000, and top-level, or "master" teachers, will make $50,000.
The reforms also shift spending from administration to the classroom, "where it belongs," Richardson said.
It will be up to voters during a statewide election this fall to complete the reforms proposed by Richardson. He signed a measure Friday setting the election for Sept. 23.
Voters will go to the polls to consider constitutional amendments that create a cabinet-level secretary of education who answers to the governor and that dig deeper into the state permanent fund for money for schools.
"The task is not over," Richardson said. "Now, all of us have to go to the voters."
Friday's bill signing ceremony was also marked by a bit of drama, as several protesters tried four times to interrupt the ceremony.
They yelled questions and comments about the Albuquerque school district's temporary suspensions of four teachers and a counselor over their refusal to remove war-related material from their classrooms. All but one of the teachers has returned to work.
Two of the protesters held a sign that read "Dissent Democracy" and "Let Them Teach."
"Stop the war on teachers' rights," Committee to Stop the War Machine member Robb Chavez yelled while Richardson signed a bill.
But Richardson and other speakers did not respond to protesters' comments.
Instead, the focus was on the fruition of a multiyear process to draft education reform that could survive legislative and gubernatorial scrutiny.
"So many people have been involved in this," said Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. "It's been a four-year process."
The education package took many of its proposals from recommendations of a task force created four years ago. The task force was made up of lawmakers and representatives from the business community, educational groups and community organizations.
Former Gov. Gary Johnson in 2001 vetoed a similar school improvement package, saying it was too costly.
A legislative study group continued to work on the reforms, and its recommendations are reflected in the new laws.