State launches pay parity program for pre-K teachers

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – For New Mexico prekindergarten teachers like Merline Gallegos, low pay levels are as much a part of the job as crayons and nap time.

Gallegos, who works at an early childhood facility in Las Cruces, said many restaurant workers are paid more than prekindergarten teachers and only her love of working with children has kept her from leaving over the last seven years.

“Right now, what we’re earning is very, very low,” she said Thursday. “We are practically living day to day.”

But there could be change on the horizon, as qualified pre-K teachers in New Mexico are now eligible for monthly wage supplements intended to bring their pay levels to the same rate as public school teachers.

The pay parity program, announced Thursday by the state Early Childhood Education and Care Department, will bump up the salaries for an estimated 133 teachers statewide – and more than 80 teachers assistants and directors – to between $41,000 to $65,613 annually.

For some prekindergarten teachers, that could mean a pay increase of $1,300 per month or more.

The payments will start this month and will come from roughly $3 million in state funds appropriated by the Legislature as part of this year’s budget, an Early Childhood Education and Care Department spokesman said Thursday.

To be eligible, pre-K teachers must be employed in a nonpublic school setting and have at least a bachelor’s degree. The amount of extra pay approved teachers get through the program will also depend on their experience level.

Elizabeth Groginsky, the agency’s secretary, said pre-K teachers have historically been paid less than public school teachers in New Mexico, despite the fact many of them hold advanced educational degrees and qualifications.

“Our new pay parity program aims to close this pay gap so that New Mexico pre-K educators are compensated more equitably at a level that better reflects their professional skills and credentials,” Groginsky said in a statement.

In fact, while state spending on early childhood programs has increased significantly over the last decade, pay levels for early childhood workers was recently flagged as a concern by an influential legislative panel.

Specifically, the Legislative Finance Committee report found child care worker wages fell from $10.10 an hour in 2017 to $10 in 2019, when adjusted for inflation.

During the same time period, the directors of child care centers saw 19% growth in their wages, according to the report.

In New Mexico, the nonprofit group OLÉ – or Organizers in the Land of Enchantment – recently launched a push for a minimum $15 hourly wage for early childhood workers as part of a federal infrastructure bill.

Members of the organization say the higher minimum wage would help recruit new workers to the field, especially in the wake of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration’s recent eligibility expansion of the state’s child care assistance program.

For her part, Gallegos, who is an OLÉ member, said a wage of $18 per hour – or $37,440 annually for a full-time worker – would provide a better quality of life and allow her to more easily pay her family’s bills.

“It would bring me peace,” she said.

She also said that early childhood workers play a vital role in preparing New Mexico children for public schools as the state moves toward Lujan Grisham’s stated goal of having 100% state-sponsored universal pre-kindergarten.

“Early childhood is the foundation for education,” Gallegos said.

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