ADVERTISEMENT

Details of teacher raise proposal emerge in New Mexico

December 3, 2021 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s top educator says a staffing crisis is the top problem facing public schools.

On Friday, the state’s education secretary shared details of a $200 million plan to increase teacher salaries by at least 7%, part of a budget proposal to compete for teachers with surrounding states and make it more worthwhile for people to become teachers.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced this week that she wants teachers in her state to be the best paid in the region based on 2019 numbers by raising salaries to $64,000 on average.

The Legislature is likely to back a salary increase, with a boon in revenue expected from oil revenues, and school districts already flush with cash from pandemic relief money.

Neighboring states are also getting federal money, and seeing the economy rebound.

“They’re likely to be passing salary increases also,” said state Sen. Bill Soules, chair of the Senate Education Committee, which will likely consider the legislation in January once it is written.

ADVERTISEMENT

Proposed legislation in neighboring Colorado would implement a minimum salary of $40,000, slightly less than what New Mexico is now. Earlier this year, Texas created a Teacher Incentive Allotment that allows up to $32,000 in payments to teachers who oversee growth in their student’s academic outcomes, meaning some teachers can earn $100,000 annually.

New Mexico has already created incentives to pay teachers to work a longer school year, but school district leaders have declined the money citing disinterest among staff and parents.

In New Mexico, fewer young people are choosing to become teachers, and those who are teaching tend to be older, tied only with Maine for the most elderly teacher population. Many are entering retirement.

“We are losing so many people out of the profession right now,” said Las Cruces Democrat Soules ahead of the Friday hearing. “My biggest concern in education right now is there are no teachers to be had.”

Teacher vacancies in the small state have increased to around 1,000 this year. Schools are also struggling to find nurses, counselors, teaching assistants, and bus drivers.

When asked by one legislator for the problem he’d most want the Legislature to solve, education secretary Kurt Steinhaus answered without pause.

“If we could get those 1,000 teacher vacancies filled, that would be No. 1,” he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Soules said that the Legislature has made its own recommendation on pay increases for teachers that are similar to Lujan Grishams, but a lot of details still need to be worked out, like how to raise salaries for those who are between the three tiers of payscale.

Under the Steinhaus and Lujan Grisham proposal, entry-level teachers could see a pay increase of around 20%, bumping the minimum teacher salary to $50,000.

“If the teacher gets a minimum salary, and that’s already a 7% raise, that’s it. But if they get a raise to a minimum and they’re short 1%, they would get an additional 1%,” Steinhaus said.

As with the current salary minimums, they apply equally across the state including in rural areas where living costs are lower. Teachers in urban districts like Santa Fe and Albuquerque say their pay hasn’t kept up with the costs of rent and childcare.

Despite the relative pay advantage, rural districts also struggle to attract teachers. Some have resorted to four-day weeks to make teaching more attractive.

Steinhaus said some school districts offer housing to teachers to lower living costs.

Republican Sen. Gay Kernan said one hiring roadblock in her rural, eastern New Mexico district was a testing requirement for teachers. She asked Steinhaus to look into why teachers struggle to pass it.

“Maybe teachers trying to get into the workforce have difficulty with that test due to the fact that maybe English is their second language,” said Kernan, of Hobbs.

The Public Education Department has taken some steps to make becoming a teacher easier, like sponsoring 500 teaching assistant positions for people who want classroom experience while they study to become a teacher.

Legislation proposed by the governor would also allocate $1.5 million for educator recruitment and $500,000 to support teachers seeking certifications that can increase their pay.

___

Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.