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Published in Print: March 21, 2001, as Teacher-Quality Bill Comes Down To Wire in New Mexico

Teacher-Quality Bill Comes Down To Wire in New Mexico

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New Mexico lawmakers spent the final days of their legislative session late last week ironing out the details of sweeping education legislation that would dramatically increase teacher compensation, create new incentives for career advancement for educators, and alter the way schools are governed in the state.

But while many of the plan's key provisions have enjoyed backing from both teachers and business groups, the ultimate fate of the measure remained unclear amid last-minute debate over such issues as the inclusion of a pilot merit-pay plan for teachers and questions about the package's hefty price tag.

"I'm optimistic, but not overly optimistic," I.B. Hoover, an Albuquerque businessman who co-chaired the task force that proposed many of the provisions, said late last week. "I can't imagine any one item causing this reform bill to not move forward."

Running longer than 135 pages, the legislation seeks to decentralize school governance, improve teacher recruitment and teacher quality in New Mexico, and provide greater support for schools and students struggling to succeed under the state's accountability system.

Among other initiatives, the plan would create local councils to give parents and educators more of a voice in how their schools are run, and it would establish a network of state- financed regional education service centers to provide schools and districts with training and technical assistance. It also would expand the list of indicators used to assess schools to include student portfolios and tests aligned with the state's academic standards.

One of the biggest changes—and certainly the most costly one—would be the way in which the state licenses educators. New teachers would be assigned mentors and considered interns for three years. At that point, they would either go on to earn second-level licenses by passing an evaluation of their skills or would lose their credentials to teach. Within another three years, they would have the option of getting top-level licenses by earning a graduate degree and by passing another evaluation.

Incentive To 'Move Up'

Although other states have adopted multitiered licensure programs, the New Mexico plan is unusual in that it would tie guarantees of certain levels of compensation to each step: New teachers would earn a minimum of $30,000, second-tier teachers would make at least $40,000, and top-tier teachers would make no less than $50,000.

Those guarantees, along with an 8 percent across-the-board increase in state funding for teachers' salaries included in a budget bill that legislators passed earlier this month, would give a significant raise to teachers in New Mexico, where the current minimum salary for new teachers is about $22,500.

The hope, backers of the measure say, is that the state could better recruit and retain qualified educators, eliminating the need to hire nonlicensed teachers. Should the plan take effect, a highly skilled teacher could be earning $50,000 or more after just six years in the profession.

"The way the system works now, if you really want to make money as a public school educator, you have to quit teaching and become a principal," said Don Whatley, the president of the New Mexico Federation of Educational Employees, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "This way, if you're really aggressive about your professionalism, you can move up, but you're going to do so based on some rigorous standards."

Many of the proposed changes were recommended by a legislatively appointed 64-member panel of business, political, and education leaders that spent nearly two years studying school improvement strategies in other states. Despite the varied constituencies supporting it, the overall plan was held up last week by wrangling over the details.

The state Senate and House of Representatives voted in favor of the package earlier this month, but the two chambers' versions differed in several areas. After more than two days of bargaining, the conference committee formed to reconcile those differences reported on March 16 that it had reached an agreement. That left just one day for each chamber to vote on whether to ratify the compromise measure before the scheduled end of the legislative session.

A major sticking point had been a provision in the Senate version that calls for a $3 million "merit pay" pilot program in which schools could choose to participate. Among other incentives, the plan would give $2,500 bonuses to individual teachers whose students' test scores improved over the course of the year. Opponents of the provision argued that the revised licensure system would be enough to prod teachers to improve, but supporters of the merit-pay proposal say that, without it, the legislation would fail to hold teachers accountable.

"This is a reform bill that is supposed to explore all avenues for enhancing student performance," said Sen. Ramsay L. Gorham, the Republican who introduced the merit-pay plan. "And this is one avenue that we haven't tried yet."

The version of the bill agreed to by the conference committee included a merit-pay plan, although its details were not available at press time.

Veto Possible

A compromise bill approved by both legislative chambers would face an uncertain future once it hit the desk of Republican Gov. Gary E. Johnson. A fiscal conservative who has unsuccessfully pushed for private school vouchers, Mr. Johnson has voiced concern over the legislation's cost, raising the prospect of a gubernatorial veto. By some estimates, the new initiatives could require up to $230 million more over the next four years, excluding the 8 percent increase for salaries.

Efforts to reach the governor were unsuccessful, but an aide to Mr. Johnson told the Albuquerque Tribune last week that the governor was "unconvinced" the plan would "allow for quantum leaps in academic performance."

Supporters of the education overhaul say they plan to make sure they're heard by the state's chief executive. Said Mr. Hoover, the Albuquerque business owner: "We will have an overwhelming majority of the business organizations in New Mexico urging him to sign whatever bill gets up to him."

Vol. 20, Issue 27, Page 22

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