For decades, our State government has failed to provide our students with the education they need and deserve, creating some of the worst racial and economic inequalities for educational achievement in the country. Sweeping changes must be made. In a landmark court decision, a judge ruled that New Mexico is violating the constitutional rights of students to a sufficient education (Yazzie/Martinez case). The court ruled that the state must provide funding sufficient so that every New Mexico student can have an equal opportunity to succeed, no matter a student’s personal, family or community circumstances, or the state’s other needs. The court also highlighted a severe teacher shortage in our state.
A recent report released by the New Mexico State College of Education Southwest Outreach Academic Research Lab found that nearly 1,200 positions in our schools were left open this fall, leaving students without access to trained counselors, librarians to help guide their research, or certified educators to lead their classrooms. That same report found that 740 classrooms in New Mexico, or roughly 53,000 students, were being taught by long-term substitutes rather than certified teachers this fall. These shortages prevent our students from achieving their full potential. Our children are forced into classrooms with large class sizes that leave them without school resources to help them overcome basic obstacles like a learning problem. On Election Day New Mexico voters sent a clear message to our public officials in Santa Fe and elected a new wave of representatives who made strengthening public education a cornerstone of their campaigns.
Heading into the 2019 legislative session, our political leaders are well-positioned to champion polices and create a budget that can enact real and lasting improvements for our students and for our public schools. Our legislature must use some of the projected $1.2 billion budget surplus to combat the teacher shortage by raising pay for licensed teachers and all public school employees. This will help districts give our students what they deserve the brightest minds to teach our them.
Legislation that prioritizes education funding and provides our students with the resources they need to obtain a real 21st Century education is also a must. This includes repealing the 2013 corporate tax give-away and redirecting those resources to funding-starved schools. And our elected officials in Santa Fe should reduce class sizes by prohibiting blanket class-size waivers and investing in sufficient staff in each of New Mexico’s public schools to ensure that every student is able to receive the personalized attention they need to succeed.
The students in our public school classrooms today are the future leaders of our towns, cities, and state. They will be business leaders, bankers, artists, public servants, and educators. In a few short years, we’re going to hand them to keys to the state. Today’s students will be the ones who have to get behind the steering wheel to move us forward. For our children to be successful in the future, we must invest in them now. Let’s make 2019 the year that New Mexico puts students first.
Betty Patterson is the president of NEA-New Mexico.