AFT New Mexico wins major new laws

By relentlessly fighting for programs that will benefit all students, and by electing state leaders with whom they see eye to eye, members of AFT New Mexico have won several legislative victories, proving they are stronger together in their union.

Members are celebrating three important new state laws, signed this month by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, that will strengthen community schools; fund career ladders to remedy the state’s teacher shortage and enhance teacher diversity; and bolster job security for school support staff.

Two other new laws will enhance services for kids. HB 2 provides raises of at least 6 percent for support staff, and funds increased minimum wages of $10 an hour for hourly education employees. SB 280 provides nearly $33 million to buy and equip district-owned school buses, allowing districts to install air conditioning as a safety measure.

Union leaders in New Mexico hailed members and lawmakers for their determination to get these bills passed, sometimes through campaigns sustained for more than a decade. A big part of the union’s strategy was mobilizing members in 2018 to vote for progressive state leadership, including the governor.

Kathy Chavez, executive vice president of AFT New Mexico, calls the moment “welcome news.” And AFT New Mexico President Stephanie Ly praised the vision shared by lawmakers and educators alike.

Community schools

With the Community Schools Act, HB 589, the state will move toward a more robust structure of community schools leading to healthier, more stable neighborhoods. The law aims to organize resources in ways that ensure students’ success while addressing their cultural and linguistic needs from early childhood through high school. It also should improve coordination of services to students and their families.

“Making a transition to a fuller and more systematic embrace of the community school model reinforces the belief that community schools aren’t just for education, but they’re the heart of the community itself,” Ly says. “Community schools build partnerships between stakeholders like businesses, healthcare providers and educators, while building trust and providing a hub for resources desperately needed in so many of our communities.”

Community schools are more than a program, Ly adds. They’re a comprehensive way of thinking about education.

Career paths to teaching

The Grow Your Own Teachers Act, HB 20, which passed both houses unanimously, will provide scholarships of $6,000 per semester for public school educational assistants studying to become teachers, allowing them to keep working as they attend college. The law also encourages administrators to allow flexibility in employees’ schedules so they can go to college classes.

Chavez points out that one important feature of the career path law is that funding is “built in,” eliminating the threat of cuts based on the whims of future lawmakers. The law’s primary sponsor was Rep. Joy Garratt, a freshman legislator and member of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, joined by Rep. Christine Trujillo, a retired educator, champion of after-school programs and former president of AFT New Mexico, who was first elected to the Legislature in 2013.

The journey began decades ago with the AFT’s push for career ladders for paraprofessionals in the 1990s, notably by AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson in Baltimore. An AFT teacher diversity initiative, kicked off in 2014, connected union experts with leaders to drive the grow-your-own concept, which became the centerpiece of a teacher diversity summit in 2017 at the AFL-CIO.

Members at other AFT locals, including Newark, N.J., Peoria, Ill., and Pittsburgh already have cut new paths to careers in teaching, using various models to help their schools build diverse and vibrant faculties.

Job security and respect

A third new law, HB 47, will empower the state’s hourly and licensed classified school employees by providing greater job security and respect. It does this by reducing the time a new employee is on probation by two-thirds—from three years to one year.

“By respecting the work performed by educational assistants, transportation workers, custodial and maintenance staff, cafeteria staff, clerical workers and other critical employees,” Chavez says, “New Mexico is sending a meaningful message that job security matters.”

Chavez thanked Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero for promoting the bill for years, despite a veto by the previous governor, adding: “Our educational assistants and classified workers are an incredible asset to our teachers and students.”

[Annette Licitra]