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Gov. OKs education overhaul

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs education bills during a news conference Wednesday at Salazar Elementary School in Santa Fe. The kids were asked who wants to be governor, and some raised their hands. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s public education system is in line for some big changes, after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law Wednesday bills increasing starting teacher pay levels, extending school years and revising the formula that directs money to the state’s 89 school districts.

The measures, which rely on a hefty funding increase included in a separate $7 billion budget bill, 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.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January, said the legislation would give more options to districts with high numbers of low-income students. She also said it marked the end of an effort to “vilify” teachers under the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez.

“The most significant investment we can make is in educators and our schools,” the governor said.

The ceremonial bill signing took place at a Santa Fe elementary school that Lujan Grisham’s sister, Kimberly, attended for part of her childhood. Kimberly Lujan was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was 2 years old and died at age 21, but the school made an effort to provide her with necessary resources, the governor said.

“I was born in the right ZIP code – and I had parents as advocates,” Lujan Grisham told reporters after Wednesday’s bill signing. “Not all students have that, and we are now trying to level the playing field.”

The bills signed into law, House Bill 5 and Senate Bill 1, will increase New Mexico starting teacher pay to $40,000 a year – up from $36,000 annually. It will also raise the minimum pay levels for more experienced teachers under the state’s three-tier licensure system – to $50,000 and $60,000 per year.

Teachers and school administrators would also get a 6 percent salary increase for the coming school year under the budget bill, which Lujan Grisham is expected to sign into law by Friday.

“We are thankful that our teachers will have the salaries they deserve and will be seen as professionals in the state of New Mexico,” said House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, who was one of the sponsors of the House education bill.

In addition, the measures signed Wednesday call for an expansion of funding for a voluntary K-5 Plus program that would add five weeks to the school year for students in low-income districts.

They also include more money flowing through the state’s funding formula for districts with a high number of “at-risk” students, defined as those from low-income families, English-language learners or those who change schools frequently.

Although some legislators say even more funding should be targeted at such students, other lawmakers described the changes as the opening act of a multiyear effort.

“This is a first step – this is not our last step,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who also played a key role in crafting the legislation.

Court ruling

Overall, state spending on public schools is set to increase by roughly $447 million – or 16 percent – over current levels in the coming year.

Legislators say that spending infusion, along with other bills, could address deficiencies highlighted by District Judge Sarah Singleton in her landmark ruling last summer and bring the state into compliance.

“I think there is a comfort level that we as a Legislature, and with this administration, have stepped up,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, told reporters after Wednesday’s news conference.

The judge gave legislators and the governor a deadline of this month to come up with a plan in response to the ruling. No hearing has been scheduled yet, according to court records.

Lujan Grisham has said she will not appeal the ruling but told the Journal last month that her administration will “litigate aggressively” in an attempt to avoid long-term court oversight of the state’s public schools.

What came to be known as the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit was actually a merging of two different lawsuits, both arguing the state has been breaking its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education to all children.

A lengthy bench trial took place in 2017, and closing arguments wrapped up in early 2018. The judge released her ruling last July, saying the state did violate the constitutional rights of students, especially at-risk students.

Amendments

Although both bills signed Wednesday passed the House and Senate by overwhelming margins during this year’s session, they prompted hearty debate.

For instance, 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. As of the 2016-17 school year, there were 766 students ages 22 or older enrolled in public schools statewide, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill.

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

Money to pay for the education measures comes from unprecedented state revenue growth, due largely to an oil drilling boom in southeastern New Mexico, and Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that the state must diversify its economy in case that funding source eventually runs dry.

“We have to have the revenue streams in our state to make sure we can sustain this for the long term,” she said.

The governor also said her administration will ensure that most of the money appropriated is spent in classrooms, not on administrative expenses.

Because the two bills signed into law are identical, the one signed later – in this case the House bill – is the one that will technically become law.

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