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Lawmakers pass bills to overhaul education

Barcelona Elementary School teacher Martha Pacheco works on reading with students Ailin Frayre and Guillermo Hernandez, both 5, during a summer program in 2017. Lawmakers are proposing to increase funding for programs that extend the school year. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s public education system would be reshaped by increasing starting teacher pay levels, extending school years and revising the formula that directs money to the state’s 89 school districts under bills approved Tuesday in both the House and Senate.

The sweeping education bills, Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 5, are aimed at bringing the state into compliance with a landmark court ruling that found New Mexico is failing to provide a sufficient education to all students, although some supporters said work began on the proposals even before the ruling was issued last summer.

“This bill, coupled with our budget, is the right thing to do for our students, our teachers and our schools,” said Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

The proposals are similar but not identical. That means lawmakers from each chamber still have some work to do before either bill is sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Both proposals, in any case, call for injecting hundreds of millions more into New Mexico public schools.

Legislative leaders said the bills – in concert with the state budget proposal – could increase public education funding by $490 million a year.

The bills would raise teacher pay, allow for an extended school year and make a variety of other changes to public education. They call for an expansion of funding, for example, for a K-5 Plus program that would add five weeks to the school year for students in low-income districts.

Legislative leaders said the proposals also would allow flexibility so individual districts and schools could create programs that address local needs.

The proposals differ, however, on teacher pay. The House version outlines raises in future years, beyond what’s in the Senate version.

But the bills have generated some controversy at the Roundhouse.

Specifically, a provision that would set the school age limit at 21 generated opposition and impassioned pleas from students in an Albuquerque charter school that helps inmates get high school diplomas.

Before voting to approve the bills, both the Senate and House added amendments that would maintain funding – for at least one year – for schools affected by the age limit. Supporters described it as a temporary solution until a longer-term plan can be worked out.

The bills also would phase out – over five years – a “small-school” funding adjustment that has helped charter schools in urban areas, lawmakers said. But the schools would benefit from other parts of the legislation, lawmakers added.

House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat and educator, called the legislation “the largest investment the state has ever made in public school education. … The bill is a once in a lifetime game changer for our students across the state.”

Both bills picked up bipartisan support, passing 41-0 in the Senate and 53-14 in the House.

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