School reforms will benefit New Mexico

Eduardo Holguín

A river of hope and opportunity is flowing once again to New Mexico’s public schools. It is a dream I have had for a number of years now.
Thanks to the leadership and hard work of a pro-public education governor, Bill Richardson, and our pro-public education legislature, a new era of school improvement has begun, one that will benefit our state, and more importantly, our children.
Making good on a major campaign promise, Gov. Richardson, with the support of legislators from both political parties, delivered a six percent salary raise for teachers.
“Why start with teacher pay?,” the governor asked in his State of the State address in January. “Because if we can’t attract and keep quality teachers, everything else is wasted money and effort.”
This effort will continue, the governor promised, and we believe that it must, in years to come.
The raise was accomplished with additional new state funding, a one percent savings from the non-instruction accounts in this year’s local school budgets, and with a modest dip into school districts’ cash balance accounts in this year’s local school budgets, and with a modest dip into school districts’ cash balance accounts that had grown tremendously in recent years.
With implementation of the mandated raise underway (along with a 3 percent raise for all other public school employees), some local school boards and superintendents are trying to blame these necessary pay raises — and the way they must be funded — for position and program cuts.
Weigh these “protests” carefully. Are these real layoffs or simply the elimination of vacant positions? What kind of positions are being eliminated? Administrators? Teachers? Non-instructional support personnel? Are these cuts rather the result of lower student enrollments (commonplace in many rural districts) or local economic downturns?
Please remember that the purpose of the current school funding initiative is to shift funds to the direct instruction of our children and away from administrative waste and excess. NEA-New Mexico and our local affiliates will be working with parents and other interested citizens in communities across our state to ensure that these cuts — and the reasons for them — do not sacrifice the quality education our students deserve.
The 6-percent pay raise does not take effect until mid-December, an accounting technique that will soften the fiscal impact on school districts and the state during the upcoming fiscal year. I commend the school districts that are making plans to put the raises into effect immediately at the start of the new school year.
Additionally, the governor and legislature also enacted a major school improvement law (HB 212) this year. This bill was the product of a collaborative effort among school administrators, school employee organizations, and the state’s leading business organizations.
While expanding accountability measures for public schools in general, it included a demanding new licensure system for teachers to ensure the highest quality teachers for our students in the years ahead. Combined with these tough new licensure requirements, however, are dramatically increased minimum beginning salaries for teachers, starting at $30,000 this year for those new to the profession. Moreover, a rigorous new annual evaluation system for teachers also is part of this initiative.
To continue this positive momentum for our public schools, New Mexico’s citizens now have the opportunity Sept. 23 to amend the state constitution in two ways. First, we will have the chance to create a secretary of education who will be a powerful advocate for our public schools and children as a member of the governor’s cabinet. Second, we will be able to increase the annual allocation from the state’s Permanent School Fund in a fiscally responsible way to fund future education reforms.
It is time for this dream to become a reality. As adults, we must let the sunshine pour through this window of opportunity — a powerful combination that will enrich New Mexico’s children as they grow into adulthood. For years, it has been just a dream — si se puede … if we can. Now, we can make it happen — Sí, se puede.