New Mexico budget shows commitment to public schools

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Just days after nearly 2,000 AFT New Mexico members and their allies packed the Statehouse in Santa Fe for a lively rally, the state Senate joined the House in passing a budget that funds class-size reductions, boosts funding for higher education and increases wages for all education employees, including an additional raise for educational assistants, who currently earn poverty wages.

New Mexico rally "I want to thank our New Mexico Democratic leadership and legislators for their commitment to public education," says AFT New Mexico President Stephanie Ly. "Together, we can reclaim the promise for public education and build a great future for our students and our state."

The budget still has to be signed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who has until March 12 to act.

Specifically, the budget includes a 6 percent increase in general funding for school districts, and $6 million to return class sizes to state-mandated levels (after those levels had been waived to accommodate inadequate funding). An additional $12 million is slated for at-risk students. All education employees will get a 3 percent pay increase, and educational assistants, who are particularly poorly paid, will receive an additional 3 percent on top of the initial raise.

Cathy Sanchez, a health assistant at Tony Hillerman Middle School in Albuquerque, says it's about time educational assistants were given the respect they deserve. "It's been so many years since we've been compensated appropriately, and we're still at poverty level," she says. "It's just not fair anymore." A health assistant for 14 years, Sanchez testified twice before legislators and attended the Feb. 15 rally. "It's important they hear our voices," she says.

The budget also includes funds for districts to work with educators to provide additional compensation to attract, train and retain education professionals. Under the budget plan, school districts and educators, not the state's Public Education Department, will collaborate to create pay systems that work for the needs of their schools. The additional funding could cover career ladders, compensation for added credentials, stipends for large class sizes, or increases to attract and retain teachers. These indicators and pay scales will be decided at the local level between school districts and educators.

In related news, Gov. Martinez's top education official, Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera, once again failed to receive a confirmation vote from the state Senate—a development AFT New Mexico applauds. Skandera, who has served in the position since 2011 despite never having been confirmed, has been widely criticized for her proposed "reforms" in areas such as merit pay and increased reliance on high-stakes standardized tests, including a teacher evaluation based heavily on students' test scores.

[AFT New Mexico, Dan Gursky, Virginia Myers]