March 1, 2019

Sweeping education reform heads to House floor

A sweeping K-12 education reform bill that would raise salaries for New Mexico teachers but could limit the growth of charter schools in the state’s urban areas is headed to the House floor.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted 11-3 to approve the measure, which would improve salaries for New Mexico’s 22,000 classroom teachers across the board over a period of years.

“It’s about time we started paying our teachers like professionals,” said Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors of House Bill 5.

Currently, teachers in the state’s three-tiered licensure system earn a base salary of $36,000 (Tier 1), $44,000 (Tier 2) and $54,000 (Tier 3).

The bill would increase those salaries next year to $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000, respectively. Over the next few years, those base salary levels would hit $46,000, $56,000 and $66,000 per tier.

“We want the best and brightest to be able to stay in the state of New Mexico and be compensated for that, and with House Bill 5, we are taking strides to doing that,” Romero said.

The bill also includes a controversial plan to reconfigure the state’s small-school size adjustment for charter schools in urban areas. Both traditional public schools and charter schools take advantage of the formula, which gives them extra money if they have a small student enrollment — 200 or fewer for elementary schools, and 400 or fewer for high schools.

But the change is worrisome to charter school operators in cities like Albuquerque. Advocates warn it could hurt a movement that has been popular among parents.

Matt Pahl, head of the nonprofit Public Charter Schools of New Mexico, told lawmakers on the committee that any change to the small-school funding formula could impede charter schools’ growth in the state because they rely on that money to keep up with increasing expenses.

Although the bill originally included a component that would cap charter school enrollment statewide at 27,000 students, that measure has since been struck from the legislation.

Some public school advocates charge that the state’s 97 charter schools, which serve about 26,000 students, eat up a disproportionate ratio of public school funds.

Thursday’s legislative action comes as lawmakers and the governor continue to finalize a budget for fiscal year 2020 that currently includes up to $500 million in new money for education to help fulfill a state District Court ruling.

That decision, handed down by First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe, says New Mexico has short-changed several groups of students with the highest needs — those learning English as a second language, special-needs students, low-income kids and Native American children.

Among other measures, Singleton cited the need to attract and retain qualified educators in a state where, according to a November 2018 report, there were 740 teacher vacancies in public schools.

Singleton did not say how much money it would take to satisfy the ruling, though some advocates say even $500 million is not enough.

HB 5 also would increase spending for at-risk students in the state’s per-pupil funding formula and give districts the chance to apply for grants to pay for a summer-school program called K-5 Plus.

And the bill would require districts to submit educational plans along with their operational budgets to the Public Education Department, adding a level of accountability.

Gwen Warniment, a deputy secretary of the Public Education Department, told the committee the department supports the budget.

“We appreciate the focus on teacher salaries,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee voted 11-0 to approve a companion bill, Senate Bill 1, which next heads to the Senate floor for consideration.

Still, lawmakers on that committee, including several Democrats, argued the state is now doing everything it can to support its public education system and that pouring more money into the system isn’t necessarily going to help it.

Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, expressed frustration at the notion that any broad education bill requesting a higher investment in public education is going to solve the problem.

“This is gonna end up as an implosion,” he said.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, went one step further, saying, “The next step is people going after districts” with lawsuits if they feel the districts are not doing enough to serve their children.