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Mammoth education bills move forward

Two major education bills that aim to turn around parts of New Mexico’s public school system are on the move at the Roundhouse.

Both bills – House Bill 5 and Senate Bill 1 – advanced out of committees this week and are now awaiting votes on their respective chamber floors.

The two measures, which are similar but not identical, have been pitched as curative efforts in response to a watershed education lawsuit against the state. District Judge Sarah Singleton ruled last year that New Mexico is not meeting the educational needs of at-risk students, a right guaranteed in the state constitution.

In response, both bills would boost funding for at-risk students, rural populations and extended learning programs that would fund additional school days and professional development hours.

The bills also would ramp up K-3 Plus, an optional summer school program for schools with high numbers of low-income students, expanding it to K-5 Plus.

And both measures would raise teacher salaries by thousands of dollars.

The House bill would phase in raises to base pay rates under the state’s three-tiered system for educators to $46,000, $56,000 and $66,000, and the Senate bill would set them at $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000. The existing salaries for Level 1, 2 and 3 teachers are at $36,000, $44,000 and $54,000, respectively.

Districts have noted that although there is extra education funding in the budget, it is allocated for new measures such as these – creating parameters around what schools can use the money for.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia told the Journal that preliminary estimates show the district would be roughly $600,000 in the black after proposed education changes.

She said enrollment drops, unknown ripple effects from legislation and the funding formula’s unit value subject that number to change.

“We may go up and down,” she said. “Much is still up in the air.”

Albuquerque Public Schools has also said certain bills would result in a multimillion-dollar hit.

For instance, APS is keeping an eye on class-size waivers expiring and changes to how federal funds are treated in the funding formula, which could cost the district more than $27 million.

The changes in HB 5 and SB 1 are not exclusively financial.

They would also establish reporting requirements, including making charter schools and school districts submit educational plans to explain where the at-risk and special education funding is going – on top of submitting their budgets to the state Public Education Department.

At least some of the proposed changes have drawn criticism.

Charter leaders have rallied against language that would restrict a funding component for extra dollars toward smaller schools, which opponents have said would particularly affect charter schools.

And nearly two dozen people showed up to speak at a House Appropriations and Finance Committee hearing to fight an age cap that would curb funding for adult students who are older than 22 at the start of the school year.

Students and staffers from Gordon Bernell Charter School in Albuquerque said this would target schools like theirs that cater to adult learners. The school serves students at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center or recently released inmates in the Bernalillo County Community Custody Program.

But the committee ultimately passed the measure 11-3, sending it on to the full House.

In all, the bill would direct roughly $450 million to public education, said Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, one of its sponsors.

“This is the largest single education bill in New Mexico history, I believe, certainly with the most financial backing,” he told representatives.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee unanimously passed the other bill, sponsored by Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, and Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who described it as the result of months of work by legislative staffers.

That bill would put roughly $330 million into public schools.

If both bills are ultimately approved by the Legislature, it will be up to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to decide which proposal to sign into law.

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