Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
In New Mexico, where the correlation between high poverty and low literacy has been clear for decades, the state is funding a number of programs and initiatives designed to close the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, as well as improve training, salaries and other opportunities for teachers.
In addition, the state implemented several tax credit programs that actually lowered the poverty rates the past couple of years.
Many of the financial commitments to education are aimed at helping fulfill goals of the 2018 Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit, named for the parents of the students who sued the state. In that case, a 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe County concluded in a 600-plus page ruling that the state had fallen short of its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education for all New Mexico students.
That failure disproportionately affects Native American students, English language learners and those who come from low-income families or have disabilities. Those four groups represent about 70% of K-12 students, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department.
The 55-page “Martinez/Yazzie Discussion Draft Action Plan” proposed by the PED quotes statistics from the state Higher Education Department, noting that among high school graduates entering college in 2020 (a COVID year) 25.2% required remediation courses in English, math or both; in 2019, 30.8% needed remedial courses; and in 2018, 35% of new students took remedial English or math.
The draft plan sets targets to reach by 2025 over 2019 levels. These include boosting reading and math proficiency by 50% for groups identified in the lawsuit, increasing high school graduation rates by 15%, and improving diversity rates among teachers by 20%.
The investment in teacher salaries and training is aimed at New Mexico being able to attract and retain educators, a move that will ultimately benefit students – particularly disadvantaged students, said Whitney Holland, president of the American Federation of Teachers, New Mexico, which represents 9,000 dues-paying union members and thousands more nonmembers.
As of last September, there were 1,048 teacher vacancies in school districts statewide, according to a report by New Mexico State University’s Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation & Policy Center. When including positions such as educational assistants and counselors, that vacancy number increased to 1,727.
Some teacher positions are being cut due to decreasing enrollment so it’s unclear how many teacher vacancies remain for this year.
But any vacancies leave some students without trained classroom teachers. And that shortage disproportionately affects students from disadvantaged families, who, unlike students from families with more economic resources, are unable to afford tutors or outside support programs, Holland said.
That’s where poverty and literacy intersect. “I think it goes back to having books at home, having access to libraries and all those other resources,” she said. “When students enter kindergarten, if they haven’t been exposed to those literacy behaviors, they’re already starting behind, and that ties into the bigger question about (the need for) universal Pre-K and the resources we are giving our students to make sure they’re starting public school on equal footing.”
One problem contributing to the teacher vacancy rate has been that “veteran educators aren’t staying in the field.” Many who have been close to retirement have been throwing in the towel early, “sometimes even before they were fully able to retire,” she said. “The other end of that is that students at colleges of education are drying up, so new teachers weren’t going into the field.”
A report prepared for the Legislative Finance and Legislative Education Study committees presents preliminary data that shows, on average, teachers have slightly less experience and do not stay in the profession as long as just a few years ago.
In 2019, teachers averaged nearly 12 years of experience; by 2021, those numbers had slightly dropped to just under 11 years.
A law that went into effect on May 18 allows retired teachers to return to the classroom sooner without losing their retirement benefits.
While it’s a little early to see the results, Holland said, “I’ve already heard really good feedback, especially about the return-to-work piece. We have a lot of retirees who, now that there’s kind of an incentive to return to work, are looking into that. So we’ll have veteran educators returning to the field in some of these unfilled positions.”
In addition to the normal classroom supports and professional teacher development and training, the PED has been holding regular online family literacy academies, “where we actually spend time with parents, teaching them best practices and strategies that they can practice at home to promote literacy within the home setting,” said Severo Martinez, the literacy and humanities director for the PED.
The 90-minute family academy Zoom sessions “allow parents time to go off-camera and work with their child before rejoining the meeting to debrief with a facilitator.”
Amber Wallin, executive director for New Mexico Voices for Children, said she was pleased with the state’s deeper commitment to children and families in recent years. The nonprofit organization has consistently advocated for increased state investment in education, particularly early education initiatives, as well as programs that help lift families out of poverty.
She also pointed to positive tax policy investments for families with kids.
“We’ve seen a massive increase in our state’s working families’ tax credit, which overwhelmingly – about 97% – goes to low income working families with kids,” Wallin said. “So we saw big increases in 2019 and 2021, where the credit was more than doubled.” In addition, a new child tax credit was passed during the 2022 legislative session, she said.
Those tax measures ultimately affect the rate of childhood poverty, and it’s well known that “childhood poverty is a predictor of such things as food insecurity, graduation rates, literacy and the ability to read at grade level,” she said.
Combined, all of these investments in education funding and tax policy will hopefully go a long way toward “tackling a problem that has been decades in the making,” Wallin said.