By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Nicole Pearson loves her job.
She’s a lead teacher in a highly structured special education classroom at Aspen Community School in Santa Fe. She has two master’s degrees and nearly two decades of experience as an educator.
But when her eldest child became gravely ill, Pearson said she had to make an excruciating choice. On a teacher’s salary, there was no way she could afford the surgeries and medications her daughter needed. So she chose to decrease her hours, dropping to part-time status and making her daughter eligible for public health coverage.
Pearson said she was only able to return to work full-time after her daughter’s death.
“My daughter passed away as a result of her condition, and that is what allowed me to come back to work full time — a hollow trade that will haunt me for the rest of my life,” she said.
This problem of educators making sacrifices — from skipping doctor’s appointments to leaving the industry — due to the cost of their health insurance is far more common than it should be in New Mexico, Pearson said.
Hundreds of educators from across the state gathered Monday at the Roundhouse for a rally demanding the Legislature fully fund House Bill 102, which would shift a significant chunk of health care costs — on average, about $4,000 per year — from public school teachers to their employers.
So far, HB 102 has garnered the approval of two legislative committees with little pushback. Before the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee earlier this month, experts promised the bill would decrease educators’ share of health care premiums to costs below those of other state employees.
However, the bill did not include an appropriation to fund the shift in costs.
The bill’s fiscal impact report provides a range of estimates for the cost of implementation, from a Legislative Finance Committee projection of $146 million to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive budget recommendation of $100 million to budget recommendations of just under $32 million from both the Legislative Education Study Committee and Legislative Finance Committee.
That’s $68 million short, said Mary Parr-Sanchez, a middle school social studies teacher and president of the state’s branch of the National Education Association.
The crowd of teachers and supporters rallied Monday in front of the Roundhouse with signs and megaphones to let legislators know that.
“We call on the Legislature to ensure that educators — as state employees and front-line workers during the pandemic — can afford health care for themselves and their families,” Parr-Sanchez said.
Securing the full $100 million is a big deal to New Mexico educators as they stretch their own household budgets and work in an industry with a significant number of vacancies, said Denise Sheehan, a bilingual education teacher and president of the Las Cruces chapter of the National Education Association.
The change would put funds formerly spent on health care premiums back in educators’ wallets, an important change as New Mexicans grapple with increasing costs of living, Sheehan said.
“Some people will see close to a $1,000 increase in their paycheck a month. That is a lot. This is a monumental change for our educators,” she said.
That’s particularly true in Santa Fe, Pearson added. She said her family’s health care costs are nearly the price of her mortgage payments each month.
“Imagine what taking the second-biggest expense off of our table could do for our profession. People would feel valued and respected,” Pearson said.
Parr-Sanchez anticipated the impact to the profession could be enormous: It could lead to recruitment of new educators and ensure educators already in the classroom stay.
The state’s educator shortage has diminished following significant investments in recent years, but it hasn’t gone away. According to a 2022 study from New Mexico State University, there are still about 1,300 educator vacancies in New Mexico, with nearly 700 teacher vacancies.
“The students of New Mexico are facing a crisis caused by too many empty classrooms and understaffed schools. One of the reasons we can’t fill those jobs is because the cost of health care for public school employees is too high,” Parr-Sanchez said.
Educators overwhelmingly support the decrease in costs. One National Education Association-New Mexico poll found that, of the more than 450 educators surveyed, 88% would be more likely or significantly more likely to stay in the profession if health care were funded at the level mandated in HB 102.
To teach well, educators have to be well, Sheehan said, and the ability to access medical care goes a long way in ensuring that happens.
Pearson said she sees herself as more than just a teacher. In her address to the crowd, she described her role as a mentor, a confidant, a substitute family member. She said it’s her job to acknowledge the trauma students bring to school, to defend students against abuse, food insecurity and other crises.
But she can’t provide this level of support to students when high health insurance costs restrict her ability to care for herself or push her into part-time hours.
“I work at a Title I school; the trauma is immense,” Pearson said, referring to a federal designation for schools serving a high number of low-income students. “I should have the access to be able to support that for myself, to be the best me.”