Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – For New Mexico teachers like Laura Mayo-Rodriguez, being an educator during the COVID-19 pandemic has been about much more than math and reading.
Mayo-Rodriguez, a sixth grade teacher at Nava Elementary School in Santa Fe, said teachers have filled the role of therapist, website developer and nurse for their students over the last several years, in addition to more traditional duties.
“During remotely hybrid learning, educators worked harder than ever,” she said during a news conference at the school Tuesday.
“We carry our students around in our hearts and in our heads.”
Starting in the coming school year, New Mexico teachers will also carry larger salaries after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law a bill increasing starter teacher pay statewide from $40,000 to $50,000 per year.
The legislation, Senate Bill 1, was approved without a single “no” vote during the just-ended 30-day legislative session and will also increase the pay levels of more experienced teachers under the state’s three-tier system for educator pay.
“This isn’t guesswork – we have to pay educators a salary that is commensurate with their experience, education and training, and the fact they work what amounts to more than a full-time job,” said Lujan Grisham, who spent part of a day in January filling in as a substitute teacher at a Santa Fe elementary school.
“I know unequivocally that there aren’t better teachers anywhere around the globe,” the Democratic governor added during Tuesday’s bill-signing event.
Amid a recent wave of retirements that pushed the number of statewide teacher vacancies to 1,000 or so, Lujan Grisham also signed three other education-related bills aimed at bolstering a teacher retirement fund and making it easier for retired educators to return to work.
The governor is also expected to act in the next week on a $8.5 billion budget plan that includes average pay raises of 7% for education employees and state workers.
Backers say the bills could help rejuvenate New Mexico’s teacher pipeline and convince younger educators to remain in the profession.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers union, lauded Lujan Grisham during Tuesday’s news conference outside Nava Elementary School.
She also criticized the administration of Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, Republican ex-Gov. Susana Martinez, for enacting policies like a since-scrapped teacher evaluation system that critics argued unfairly tied teacher pay levels to student test scores.
“I remember what happened in this state before Gov. Lujan Grisham was elected,” Weingarten said.
This year’s increase in teacher salary levels – teachers at districts that provide additional school days would get even larger pay raises under a separate budget bill still awaiting the governor’s signature – was made possible by a state revenue windfall created by record-breaking oil production.
While New Mexico has in past years sought to balance its budget by raiding school districts’ cash balances, Lujan Grisham vowed Tuesday her administration would not go back on the pay raises.
“When New Mexico makes a commitment to the classroom, we stand by that commitment,” she said.
The salary increases for teachers are not cheap, as adjusting the minimum educator pay levels will cost roughly $76.8 million in the fiscal year that starts in July.
In addition to increasing starting teacher pay from $40,000 to $50,000 per year, the bill signed Tuesday will increase pay for level two and level three teachers to $60,000 and $70,000 per year, respectively. That’s up from $50,000 and $60,000 annually under current state statute.
The increases will make teacher pay levels in New Mexico among the highest in the nation, though other states have also moved to increase educator salaries.
As of last year, New York had the highest average teacher salary at $87,069 per year, according to National Education Association data.
New Mexico came in 32nd with an average annual teacher pay rate of $54,256.
Meanwhile, whether the increase in teacher pay leads to improved student outcomes will likely be scrutinized in the coming years.
New Mexico has chronically ranked toward the bottom of states in national education rankings, and a legislative report released last fall found public school students had lost the equivalent of between 10 and 60 days of instruction due to the pandemic.
The three other education-related bills signed Tuesday by the governor are:
- House Bill 73 – Shortens amount of time retired teachers must wait before returning to the classroom while still getting pension benefits.
- House Bill 13 – Boosts stipend amount for state teacher residency program.
- Senate Bill 36 – Increases taxpayer-funded contributions into state teacher retirement fund for next two years.