In a landmark win for public school students and working families, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has increased public education spending by $216 million to $3.5 billion for the coming school year. The nearly 8 percent boost, which Lujan Grisham signed into law March 11, includes a 4 percent salary increase for teachers, public school staff and faculty; $74 million more for early childhood education, additional prekindergarten slots and more subsidized daycare and counseling services for families living on the brink of poverty; money for community schools; and funding for teacher mentorships and teacher residencies as well as “grow your own” programs that should increase the number of new teachers. It also provides $17 million toward a tuition-free plan for public colleges.
AFT New Mexico members have worked for years to win education funding, testifying before elected officials and policymakers, writing letters, rallying and urging legislators to take care of New Mexico’s students and working families. In a state ranked by Education Week as 50th in the nation in public education quality in 2019—with teacher shortages, crowded classrooms, outdated textbooks and school buildings in need of repair—this advocacy has been crucial.
The new infusion of funding, due in part to record-breaking oil production in the state’s southeastern region, in part to activism and in part to a friendlier state government, is expected to help turn the tide.
“What a difference an election makes,” says AFT New Mexico President Stephanie Ly. While former Gov. Susana Martinez was hostile to public school educators—at one point she vetoed all higher education funding out of the state budget, and she consistently promoted charter schools, vouchers and excessive testing—when she was replaced by Lujan Grisham, a consistent advocate for public schools, everything shifted.
“The rapid change in tone and support from our governor and elected leaders in Santa Fe could not be starker,” says Ly. In the two years since Lujan Grisham was elected, investments in public education have been the largest the state has ever seen. “From establishing dedicated funding for early education through college and career readiness, to investments in mentorship, career and technical education, scholarships for new teachers, better working conditions for higher education faculty and staff, and a return to respect for public education professionals, our governor and our allies in the Legislature are working diligently to repair our system of public education in New Mexico.”
In addition to Lujan Grisham, many member of the state Legislature are champions of public education—including about a dozen AFT New Mexico members.
“AFT New Mexico members across our state work very hard during every election cycle to ensure the leaders we send to Santa Fe know and reflect our values when they create laws on our behalf,” says Ly. “After many years of work, our efforts to lay a firm educational foundation for our students, families and the communities we serve are beginning to fully be realized.”
Changes made in state government will be felt where it matters most: In the public schools. For Marisa Poleviyaoma, an educational assistant at Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School in Zuni, one of the state’s pueblo communities, the budget increase means more teaching materials that resonate with her tribal students. “We are often without meaningful curriculum and instructional materials that are culturally and linguistically relevant,” says Poleviyaoma. “I am happy to see beginning steps toward locally created instructional materials that will really reach the students I help teach every day.”
Nicole Keeney, a math teacher at Socorro High School, says increased funding for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is encouraging. “As a math teacher, continued funding for these areas of education are critical for our students’ future success,” she says. Keeney, who participated in lobby days in the state’s Capitol, sees a direct line from those political conversations to the classroom. “I felt like our elected representatives and governor listened to our concerns, and I am encouraged by items included in this year’s budget, such as increased funding for mentorship and professional development for teachers, and increased funding for STEM education fields.”
Lujan Grisham also signed legislation to provide free breakfast and lunch to about 12,500 low-income children who currently pay a reduced price for schools meals.