New Mexico’s ‘Education Moonshot’ addresses teacher and school staff shortage

New Mexico has just passed legislation that will have such a big impact on public education, advocates are calling it the Education Moonshot. The package of four bills signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on March 1 raises teachers’ pay, secures pensions, expands paid teacher residencies and eases restrictions for veteran educators returning to fill vacancies plaguing the schools.

NM Gov. Lujan Grisham and Randi Weingarten
“Yesterday’s bill signing lays the groundwork to rebuild the education profession in New Mexico, making education a career that our communities see as viable and respected,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who was with Lujan Grisham (both pictured at right) when she signed the bill at a Santa Fe elementary school. These investments to retain veteran educators and attract newcomers could not come at a more important time. “The legislation, along with other measures, will help educators rely on one job—not two or three—to sustain their families, while ensuring their pension benefits are secure. The residency program and incentives for retirees to return to classrooms will help tackle the teacher shortage, and better prepare our newer educators.”

What’s more, the bills address critical education issues that will continue to shape public schools moving forward, among them a change from top-down, high-stakes accountability models to schools that focus instead on continuous academic growth, the well-being of the whole child and a collaborative environment that respects educators.

Severe shortages

Across the nation, more than 40 percent of school districts report severe shortages of school personnel ranging from teachers and classroom assistants to custodians, bus drivers and food service workers. And the pipeline of new teachers is running low: Enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by 36 percent between 2010 and 2018.

Vacancies in New Mexico have reached historic levels: More than 1,000 licensed educator positions are unfilled, which means more than 20,000 students are without well-trained educators. The shortage is particularly acute for students from low-income families as well as Native Americans, English language learners and special education students, who are not getting the services they need to succeed. And the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, with many teachers retiring or leaving the profession.

Gov. Lujan Grisham signed up to be a substitute teacher herself, putting in an afternoon with kindergartners earlier this year to help stem the gap and also to demonstrate the need for more educators.

Part of the problem is pay so low that many people pass on becoming teachers in the first place. And retention is an enormous issue—educators who face mountains of testing requirements and lack of autonomy in addition to having to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet wind up leaving to work in other fields.

Creating solutions

Senate Bill 1 addresses the pay issue by raising teacher compensation by $10,000: The new pay rate will raise each tier minimum by that amount. New teachers currently earn $40,000 a year. Lujan Grisham is expected to sign another bill that would raise pay for other school workers, like custodians and school nurses, by 7 percent and approve a $15 minimum wage for all school and state workers.

House Bill 73 allows retired teachers to return to the classroom to help fill teacher vacancies sooner by decreasing the time between when they retire and when the return. That time span went from one year to three months.

To encourage aspiring teachers to finish their degrees fully prepared to enter the teacher workforce, House Bill 13 establishes a $35,000 salary for those serving in classrooms during their final year of school; the same bill provides a stipend for the teachers and principals who mentor them.

And, finally, Senate Bill 36 increases employer contributions to teachers’ retirement funds.

Lujan Grisham praised the New Mexico legislators—Democrats and Republicans—who passed these important bills. And while the state Legislature—along with years of union activism—was of course instrumental in passing the new laws, Lujan Grisham’s steadfast leadership and support drove them forward.

“We've made enormous strides in demonstrating that we respect and value the professional educators who make a difference in the lives of New Mexico children every single day,” said Lujan Grisham. “We will continue to use every avenue to build up New Mexico schools, students, families and teachers.”

“We were proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor as she enacted these measures,” said Weingarten, “and we celebrate her efforts to respect our profession; recruit new educators into our schools and institutions of higher education; and retain skilled, veteran educators in our classrooms.”

[Virginia Myers]