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Thursday, March 20, 2003

Way Cleared for Education Reforms

By David Miles
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE Legislators on Wednesday approved a slew of education reform measures, including proposed constitutional amendments to create a governor-appointed secretary of public education and to take more income from a permanent fund.
    Other measures would provide a transition period for the proposed education governance system and create a three-level teacher licensing system with minimum annual teacher salaries.
    The constitutional amendments would be on the ballot for an election planned for this fall, pending approval of a measure (HB 310, SB 579) providing for the election. The amendments themselves bypass the governor but require voter ratification.
    The bills establishing the transition period (SB 911) and teacher licensing system (HB 212) go to the Democratic governor.
    Gov. Bill Richardson and representatives of the New Mexico Business Roundtable for Educational Excellence said they plan to launch a statewide public awareness campaign to push for voter approval of the constitutional amendments. The business group, which includes the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Commerce and Industry of New Mexico, said its campaign would include television and radio ads.
    Richardson has said the education secretary post is needed for him and future governors to achieve their education agendas.
    A proposed constitutional amendment (committee substitute for SJR 2, 5, 12 and 21) approved by legislators would create a cabinet-level secretary of public education and a 10-member elected Public Education Commission. The powers and duties of the commission would be spelled out in state law in the future.
    Legislators approved a companion measure (committee substitute for SB 911) to establish a transition period for the new post and commission. Until July 1, 2004, the secretary of public education would be prohibited from establishing new education policy without first consulting with the commission.
    New Mexico currently has a policy-making state Board of Education with 10 elected members and five members appointed by the governor. The state also has a superintendent of public instruction appointed by the board.
    Lawmakers also approved a school reform measure with a teacher licensing system that would establish minimum annual teacher salaries of $30,000, $40,000 and $50,000, depending on experience and qualifications.
    In addition, legislators approved the proposed constitutional amendment to increase the annual income distribution from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for the education reforms.
    The measure (floor substitute for SJR 6), which the House approved on a 42-26 vote and senators approved on a voice vote, has sparked controversy because many legislators view the permanent fund as an endowment reserved for future generations of New Mexicans.
    Several Republicans contended that the proposal would diminish future distributions from the fund and jeopardize funding for New Mexico's public schools, which currently receive about 83 percent of the fund's distributions.
    But many Democrats said the funding was necessary to pay for much-needed school reforms, including higher teacher salaries.
    "I would urge you to stick your necks out," Rep. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who sponsored the reform bill containing the teacher licensing system, told House colleagues.
    The proposed constitutional amendment would immediately boost the annual distribution from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to 5 percent. It then would increase to 5.8 percent starting in the 2005 fiscal year and continuing for eight years. The distribution rate then would drop to 5.5 percent for the next four years, after which it would decrease to 5 percent.
    The proposal would generate up to an estimated $78 million a year for school reforms during the period when the distribution rate would be boosted to 5.8 percent.
    Under the proposal, the distribution rate would fall back to 5 percent if the five-year average market value of the permanent fund dropped below $5.8 billion. The fund was valued at $6.3 billion at the end of last year.