New Mexico educators demand changes in classrooms

About 500 teachers and education activists marched Sunday outside the Roundhouse to demand better pay, smaller class sizes and better classroom results. Participants carried placards that read “Teachers Need Good Pay to Stay” and “No Teachers No Future” at the noon rally, organized by the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and the National Education Association-New Mexico. Julie Wojtko, a teacher and an advanced education services facilitator at Arrowhead Park Early College High School in Las Cruces, came to the rally with her 11-year-old son, Aiden. “I’m here because teachers and students are more exhausted than ever, and we need the governor and our legislators’ help to reduce our class sizes [and] to increase our wages to reflect the work that we’ve been putting in during the pandemic,” said Wojtko, 41. She said supported Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s proposal to increase teachers’ wages by 7 percent this year, given how much her health insurance costs have risen recently.

The great disconnect

On May 18, a judge overseeing the historic Yazzie-Martinez case ordered the New Mexico Public Education Department to take stock of the massive digital divide in the state and finally identify the roughly 76,000 students who lacked Internet connections they desperately needed for school. 

One of PED’s responses was to create a Google survey for students and staff to fill out online, an action that left advocates and school leaders mystified. “It doesn’t make sense for a lot of different reasons — most of all because people who don’t have internet aren’t going to fill out an online survey,” pointed out Michael Noll, community schools coordinator at Peñasco Independent School District, whose students are among the plaintiffs in the suit. The survey is just the latest back-and-forth in a seemingly endless seven-year legal battle over inequitable education in New Mexico, where vulnerable students receive such an inadequate education that they’re in danger of being irreparably harmed, the First Judicial District Court found in 2108. The court has retained jurisdiction over the Yazzie-Martinez case ever since, to make sure the state implements a litany of comprehensive, mandated reforms. 

Three years later, the state has barely made any progress, critics argue. They say the online survey reflected a broad lack of foresight and basic understanding, especially in light of the state’s long-standing problems with internet access, which vastly undercut students’ ability to learn after the pandemic struck and classes went online.

New Mexico bill would keep school funding steady despite enrollment drops

Enrollment has dropped in New Mexico’s public schools during the coronavirus pandemic, partly because many families have opted to home-school their children. So state legislators are moving to maintain funding at pre-pandemic levels, typically based on the previous year’s head count. The House Education Committee on Saturday unanimously passed House Bill 175, which would ensure no district or charter school receives less funding for next school year than this one. “If all things remain equal, and we aren’t held harmless, we’re going to have to cut another $7 million from our budget due to a significant loss in enrollment,” said Linda Siegel, a lobbyist for Santa Fe Public Schools. “We believe that many of these families that went out of state or started home schooling will return.

Districts can return to in-person learning in early February

School districts will be able to start in-person learning, through a hybrid system, for students of all ages beginning on Feb. 8, Gov. Michelle Lujan Griaham announced during her State of the State address on Tuesday, declaring, “there’s no substitute for in-person learning.”

The state will leave the decision up to local school boards whether or not to allow in-person learning again, as it has for elementary school students for much of the past few months. Middle and high school students at public schools have been using remote-only learning since March of 2020. “I believe the planning and hard work has paid off, and our state has developed a solid, epidemiologically-sound plan for a safe expansion of in-person learning for all age groups, supported by union leadership,” Lujan Grisham said. “We will get this right, and we will move forward, and every school district in the state will be able to welcome all ages of students safely back to the classroom on February 8.”

Related: Lujan Grisham delivers State of the State address, remotely

Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart and Human Services Department Secretary Dr. David Scrase provided more details in a press conference after Lujan Grisham’s State of the State, where he called it a “first step.”

“It’s not a last step and it requires our ongoing diligence to make sure that it works,” Stewart said.

Lawmakers want to give local school boards the authority to open in-person learning

As state education officials continue to look for ways to safely reopen schools to students, Republican legislators want that power to be put in the hands of local school boards. “The goal is to try to get as many kids back into in-house schooling as soon as possible — safely,” said Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, who said he plans to file legislation giving school boards, rather than the state, the authority to do that. 

He said the bill will include an emergency clause making it law as soon as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs it, which could be as soon as mid-March — if she supports it. “This is something that all New Mexicans — Republicans and Democrats — can get behind,” he said. 

Meanwhile, House Republicans held a news conference Tuesday to say they intend to introduce similar legislation to “get our kids back in the classroom where they can flourish,” Rep. James Townsend, , R-Artesia, said. Republican lawmakers say children are suffering academically, emotionally, mentally and physically from being isolated from their peers and teachers. That seems to be the crux of the argument when it comes to sending children back to school full time, yet some question whether the safety factors are worth the risk.

Report outlines deficiencies in education for Native American students

While Native American students in New Mexico are showing improvement in graduation rates, third-grade reading and math proficiency, they continue to perform well below their peers on state and national measures of achievement. As a result, a report released Monday makes several recommendations to help close the gap. They include asking the Legislature to reduce or eliminate the so-called Impact Aid credit from the state’s public education funding formula, freeing up the money for affected school districts to spend on evidence-based interventions. “If the Legislature were to remove the Impact Aid credit from the public education funding formula, Impact Aid districts could locally decide to spend the additional operational funding on added supports for facility needs, instruction, tribal collaboration activities, or tribal education departments,” the Legislative Finance Committee wrote in a progress report on the implementation of the Indian Education Act, which was passed in 2003. Federal Impact Aid compensates school districts and charter schools for the loss of property tax from tribal lands and other tax-exempt federal property within their boundaries.

Lawmaker wants high-ranking administration positions to address Hispanic education

An Albuquerque lawmaker wants the state to do more to help Hispanic students who are falling behind. 

Toward that end, Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, plans to file a bill this week asking the state to appoint two assistant cabinet secretary positions for Hispanic education at both the K-12 and college levels. Among other goals, the new administrators would work on developing multicultural education materials and curriculum, plus hiring bilingual teachers to best meet the needs of Hispanic students. 

Trujillo, who asked the Legislative Education Study Committee to endorse her bill heading into the 2021 legislative session, said Monday it’s an update of a legislative proposal pitched by former Rep. Rick Miera,  the onetime head of the House Education Committee, some 10 years ago. 

She said her bill is directly tied to the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico court case, in which a number of plaintiffs sued the state, contending it was not providing enough resources to offer a quality education for certain groups of students, including Hispanic children. 

A state district judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the state to find ways to meet the needs of those students. 

“This bill institutes what the judge wanted in terms of supporting children of color — in this case, Hispanic students,” Trujillo said Monday. 

Traditionally, Hispanic students have lagged behind their white counterparts. State data from 2019 shows just 30 percent of New Mexico’s Hispanic students were proficient in reading, compared to 48 percent of white students. In math, the differences are even more stark, with just 16 percent of Hispanic students reaching proficiency levels, compared to 34 percent of whites. 

Her bill includes a number of components to support Hispanic students in both public schools and colleges, including working out a five-year strategic plan to improve student enrollment and achievement at the college level. Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo and a member of the committee, said he supports Trujillo’s bill.

Criminalizing disability: Special-needs kids who don’t get help in school are winding up in jail

It was right after the fifth-period bell last October that Sebastian Montano lay face down in the grass outside Alamogordo High School, screaming for his mother, as two police officers pinned him to the ground and thrust a Taser in his back. Moments earlier, a staff member had called police after learning that the 16-year-old, a special needs student who’d recently dropped out, was now trespassing on school grounds. A shy teenager with light brown hair and big green eyes, Sebastian was well known to staff and students at Alamogordo High. He had a long and messy school history, including 16 documented run-ins with school police officers — all in relation to behaviors associated with his disabilities: autism spectrum disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, PTSD, epilepsy, and ADHD. But he was also a boy who showed great promise.

Lawmakers point state to new educational future

It was a good year for education. Whether it was great depended on who you asked. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders, both Democratic and Republican, extoled investments New Mexico made in education Saturday as the 60-day session came to a close. 

“This is a Legislature that delivered a moonshot,” the governor nearly shouted during a post-session press conference in her Cabinet Room on the fourth floor of the Roundhouse. 

State lawmakers pumped an additional $500 million into the public schools budget and created a new early education department. Teachers and school administrators received a salary increase. And money for early childhood programs got a boost. 

But bills that emphasized multicultural, bilingual education and strengthened the community school model – ideas that some lawmakers and education advocates consider transformational – seemed destined to die, stuck in legislative committees. 

Then in the final hours of the 2019 legislative session, two of them were pulled from certain death and placed on the Senate floor Saturday morning. 

The Multicultural Education Framework, a centerpiece of the Transform Education NM coalition of Yazzie Martinez education lawsuit plaintiffs and community advocates, was defeated, going down on  on a 14-22 vote, with seven Democrats voting against the bill. 

In contrast, a bill that strengthens the community school model, cleared the Senate after contentious debate on a bipartisan vote of 24-15 and and is headed to Lujan Grisham’s desk. A priority of the governor, the community school model provides social supports for struggling students and makes schools a community hub. 

Sen. Mimi Stewart, a retired teacher who chairs the Legislative Education Study Committee, put up a spirited defense of the legislation. 

The community schools idea had been long studied by the LESC, she said.

House, Senate send identical education spending plans to the governor

The state Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday approved identical plans for how New Mexico should spend a big boost in public education funding, sending the two measures to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Both Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 5 provide for an additional $450 million in public education spending next year, including $113 million aimed at providing support for at-risk students and an extra $38 million to increase teacher pay. While much of the content of the bills mirrored earlier versions debated last week, there was one difference: A one-time increase in annual base pay for teachers, tied to the level of their teaching license, will amount to $2,000 less than what was included in the previous bills. The original plan was to start those teachers at $42,000 (tier one license), $52,000 (tier two) and $62,000 (tier three), with subsequent raises so that over the next few years they would eventually start earning salaries closer to $46,000, $56,000 and $66,000. Instead, under the bills approved Wednesday, teachers would start off earning base pay of $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000, with no immediate raises following.