Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Amid projections for strong revenue growth, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she will ask legislators to boost teacher pay by 7% next year – a move intended to bring New Mexico salaries in line with the national average.
The proposal comes as New Mexico’s education system faces an explosion in teacher vacancies, a surge in educator retirements and dismal student proficiency rates.
Lujan Grisham, Democrat up for reelection next year, said educators deserve sizable raises after enduring the challenge of teaching during a pandemic. The goal, she said, would be to make New Mexico teachers the best-compensated in the region.
“New Mexico educators deserve better compensation – it’s as simple as that,” the governor said in a written statement. “And we will deliver it.”
In addition to 7% raises, the governor’s proposal calls for increasing the minimum salary for teachers in the state’s three-tier licensing system to $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000.
Her office estimated the increases would bring the average educator salary to about $64,006.
It would be roughly in line with estimates for the national average for public school teachers in the 2019-20 school year – $63,645, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and $64,133, as calculated by the National Education Association.
Salaries for instructional staff in New Mexico last year trailed those in Colorado, Texas and Utah, according to NEA figures.
Kurt Steinhaus, a retired superintendent appointed by Lujan Grisham this year to lead the Public Education Department, has said he wants New Mexico’s average teacher salary to exceed that of surrounding states.
“Educators expect and deserve the respect of the state and communities they serve,” he said Wednesday in a written statement. “This administration will continue to demonstrate that respect.”
Legislators’ budget plan
The proposed raises would cost New Mexico about $280 million a year and apply to all education personnel, not just teachers. Spending in the state general fund this year totals about $7.45 billion.
The governor’s proposal comes as lawmakers prepare to meet for a 30-day session starting Jan. 18, dedicated largely to approving a state budget and handling financial matters.
They have a special session that begins next week, but the agenda doesn’t include approval of the annual state budget.
Lawmakers are expecting strong revenue growth based on consumer spending and revenue from the oil and gas industry.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the influential Legislative Finance Committee, said she expects legislators’ own budget proposal to include a raise for teachers.
“I think we’ve got something close to that,” she said of the governor’s proposal.
Lawmakers, Lundstrom said, will also consider raises for other public employees.
Rep. Ryan Lane, an Aztec Republican and member of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said he favors an increase of some kind for teachers.
“Whether that number is 7 (percent), 5 or some other number, I’m not sure,” Lane said in an interview. “One of the issues I hear very commonly spoken about from people who don’t end up going into the teaching profession is they a have concern about the pay.”
Lawmakers, Lane said, should also take other steps to improve the school system, such as funding new efforts to provide mentors to less experienced teachers.
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said she was glad to see the governor’s proposal. But she said legislators will consider pay increases for other occupations, too, amid difficulty recruiting people for all kinds of jobs.
“We desperately need more teachers,” Stewart said. “We need more nurses, and we need higher salaries for our state workers overall.”
Low student proficiency
This year’s budget had 1.5% raises for teachers and other state employees. The biggest recent raise for teachers came in 2020, when public school staff received 6% increases.
Looming over the education funding debate is New Mexico’s persistently low student test scores. In 2019, for example, just 30% of third graders were proficient in reading.
Ongoing litigation is also a factor. A judge ruled in 2018 that New Mexico was violating the rights of some students by failing to provide a sufficient education – a case that centers on students who are English-language learners, Native American or from low-income families.
State policymakers have turned to a variety of measures to try to boost student achievement, including incentives intended to get school districts to extend the school year and learning time.
In legislative hearings, educators and their advocates have testified about exhaustion after the pandemic-triggered shifts to online learning and the need for better support from school leaders, more professional development and extra time to plan, in addition to better compensation.