SANTA FE – The New Mexico Public Education Department will push for several new initiatives next year, including $10,000 stipends for as many as 100 public school teachers who get top marks on the state’s evaluation system and a $15,000 incentive for qualifying college students who pledge to teach in the state for at least three years after graduating.
The initiatives were presented Thursday to a key legislative panel as part of a nearly $2.9 billion budget request for the coming year, which would amount to an increase of $132.6 million – or 4.8 percent – from current spending levels.
Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera told lawmakers the budget request could also include $14.1 million to increase minimum New Mexico K-12 teacher pay to $36,000 per year, up from $34,000. Most experienced educators would not receive pay raises under the PED plan.
The proposed increase in minimum teacher pay is an “acknowledgement we want to be competitive with our surrounding districts and states in attracting teachers,” Skandera told members of the Legislative Finance Committee during a hearing at the state Capitol.
However, several Democratic lawmakers voiced misgivings about the budget plan, with one legislator pointing out a Santa Fe district judge recently issued a partial injunction that blocks PED from using its teacher evaluation system to make certain educator employment and advancement decisions until a trial is held next spring.
Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, said the $10,000 stipends for “exemplary” teachers might violate the judge’s order, while also blasting PED leadership for not proposing salary increases for longer-tenured teachers.
“Right now, this is a morale issue around the state,” Morales said.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, was also critical of PED’s funding approach, saying the agency has created a system of “winners and losers” around the state.
Public school funding has been a hot-button issue during recent legislative sessions, with Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration pushing for more money to be spent on specific initiatives run by the PED and many Democratic lawmakers and teachers union leaders insisting the bulk of state dollars should flow to the state’s 89 school districts via a funding formula.
Overall spending on K-12 public schools and early childhood programs has steadily increased in recent years, and education spending currently makes up 44 percent of the state’s $6.2 billion budget.
But plummeting oil prices have caused revenue estimates for “new” state money next year to be pared back to $232 million – down more than $60 million from four months ago – and the PED budget request will have to be adjusted to reflect the reduced forecast, Skandera said.
In response to legislators’ questions, she did not say Thursday specifically which incentives might be reduced or scrapped. A PED spokesman told the Journal the matter is still under review.
As proposed Thursday, the budget request calls for increased funding for both pre-kindergarten and K-3 Plus, a voluntary enrollment program that runs from kindergarten through third grade and aims to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and others.
Among the new initiatives outlined by PED, the stipends for teachers receiving top evaluation marks and the financial incentives for future teachers would each cost the state $1 million in the coming budget year.
The teacher stipend would be awarded to up to 100 educators who are classified as “exemplary” on their state-issued evaluations – only 2.5 percent of the roughly 20,000 teachers evaluated this year got that designation.
Meanwhile, the $15,000 incentive for college students who pledge to teach in state for at least three years would be a way to entice more young New Mexicans to become teachers, Skandera said. As many as 66 students could be chosen under the program; they would have to meet certain academic criteria, such as a minimum 3.5 grade point average, to qualify.
“On the whole, we’re not recruiting our best and brightest,” Skandera said at Thursday’s hearing.
The 30-day legislative session starts Jan. 19.