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Education

New Mexico Lawmakers Pass Wide-Ranging School-Reform Act

By William Snider — July 03, 2019 7 min read

Overcoming obstacles that had led to the defeat of similar proposals in their past three legislative sessions, New Mexico lawmakers voted this month in the closing hours of the 1986 session to approve and fund a major public-school reform act.

The comprehensive package includes provisions to: grant $2,200 across-the-board salary increases to all certified school personnel; eliminate teacher tenure; lower student-teacher ratios in primary grades; mandate kindergarten for all 5year-olds; and increase curriculum, testing, and graduation requirements.

The bill will become law if Gov. Toney Anaya signs it by March 12. The Governor, who can exercise a line-item veto over legislation, has indicated he will sign most of the bill but still has reservations about the teacher-tenure provision, which is tied to the salary increase.

State officials estimate that the across-the-board salary boost for teachers, counselors, and librarians will cost $33.7 million the first year. The remainder of the reform package-parts of which will be phased in gradually to reduce costs in the earlier years-will cost more than $30 million over four years, officials said.

Climate of Reform

The increase in state support for public education come at a time when New Mexico, like other Southwestern states, faces a decline in tax revenues, mainly because of falling oil and gas prices. But, unlike lawmakers in surrounding states, New Mexico legislators voted to raise $150 million in new taxes in the next fiscal year rather than accept an austerity budget.

In New Mexico, state support accounts for over 90 percent of funding for public schools.

“After the adjournment of the 1985 session, there was widespread popular disenchantment with the legislature, which had consistently fought the Governor’s education proposals with the result that there was no significant legislation passed,” said David Coulton, dean of the college of education at New Mexico State University in Albuquerque.

“The increase in both legislative and gubernatorial awareness of this disenchantment, coupled with the prospect of elections this fall, helped set the stage for compromise,” he said.

Although three legislative committees have been studying education reform for a year, lawmakers continued to amend a compromise package until late into the night preceding the final day of the 1986 session.

The success of the measure was assured when lawmakers, faced with raising revenues merely to fund an austerity budget, agreed to increase the state’s sales- and income-tax rates by a greater amount to fund about $50 million in new programs and salary increases for public education.

Said one teachers’ union leader who favors the package: “Everyone had to compromise except the children of New Mexico.”

Most state education officials expressed sentiments similar to those of Alan Morgan, the state superintendent, who said he had “some reservations about specific sections” of the package but added that over all, “the measure is going to be good for our kids and school systems.”

Several state officials said New Mexico’s delay in passing comprehensive education reform might prove to be a benefit, permitting officials to avoid mistake. made in pioneering efforts in other states.

Tenure Eliminated

The most controversial provision of the 24-point package eliminates the state’s teacher-tenure system. Under its terms, teachers employed for more than three years by one school system could no longer expect I, to have their contracts renewed automatically.

In addition, the bill replaces the formal hearing process to which teachers had been entitled when appealing a school board’s decision with an arbitration mechanism, in which teachers challenging a termination action bear the burden of proof.

Supporters of the tenure provision say it gives local school boards the authority to enforce teacher-competency-evaluation requirements developed by the state board and scheduled to be implemented this summer.

“The burden is placed very heavily on local school boards to establish and follow policies regarding the acceptable level of performance of their employees,” said Luciano R. Baca, director of the Governor’s office of education.

The fate of the tenure provision is still uncertain, although Governor Anaya said last week that he would stand by his commitment not to separate the tenure provision from the across-the-board salary increase for teachers.

“I could simply veto the tenure provision and leave the new money for teachers, but that would be breaking faith with those with whom this was negotiated,” he said.

He said his only option to save tenure would be to give teachers the same 5 percent salary raise given to noncertified school employees.

The legislative compromise “was put together in a few minutes,” the Governor said. “The [arbitration] process is not as strong as I would have preferred.”

Unions Divided

The state’s two major teachers’ unions have taken opposing positions on the tenure-repeal issue.

The New Mexico Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has refused to support the entire reform bill, largely because of its opposition to the elimination of tenure.

In a strongly worded statement, Jude Mason, president of the N.M.E.A., told teachers that “your due-process rights have been replaced by a flawed process in which you bear not only the burden of proof but your own legal expenses as well as those of the board of education and the arbitrator’s fee if you lose.”

“The basic standard of justice that one is innocent until proven guilty is no longer a privilege accorded to you,” the statement continued.

But John Mitchell, president of the New Mexico Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said that I “in general, we think it is an excellent measure. It will allow districts to get rid of incompetent teachers, and we can’t say we’re against that.”

The N.M.F.T., unlike the N.M.E.A., supported the reform package from the beginning, he noted, and helped convince legislators that they should not abolish tenure without providing new safeguards for teachers.

The bill specifically forbids the firing of teachers for voicing disagreement with district policies, participating actively in a professional or political organization, or exercising professional discretion in the classroom within district guidelines.

Although the N.M.F.T. is awaiting the advice of its lawyers before officially endorsing the new termination-appeal process, “it appears to protect teachers from unjust termination,” Mr. Mitchell said. “The due-process procedure is one we feel we will be able to endorse,” he added.

Salary Package

The $2,200 across-the-board salary increase for all certified school personnel, effective in the next school year, would bring the average starting teacher’s salary to $18,000 and raise the average salary of all teachers in the state to $24,750.

The legislature chose an across-the-board increase rather than the percentage increase proposed by Governor Anaya because “a percentage approach is not as effective in bringing base salaries up,” Mr. Morgan said. “They wanted to compensate the lower end of the scale.”

Lower Teacher Workload

More important than the salary increases, according to Mr. Mitchell of the N.M.F.T., is a provision that will lower the student-teacher ratio in primary grades by target dates set over the next several years.

For instance, by the 1987-88 school year, each kindergarten teacher will be assigned a maximum of 20 students.

The following year, a maximum of 20 students will be allowed in each 1st-grade classroom, and teachers will have the option of having the local school board provide them with an aide.

The bill sets a maximum of 25 students per teacher for grades 4 through 7, effective with the 1990-91 school year. In addition, secondary-school teachers will be assigned a maximum of 160 students daily, except in English classes, where the maximum will be 135.

The package would also relieve teachers of most non-instructional duties.

Implementation dates for these costly provisions were delayed to alleviate the need to find additional new revenues this year, according to state education officials.

“The next legislature and governor are going to have to figure out how to pay for these in the face of a very precarious revenue base,” said Mr. Coulton.

“If the bottom falls out of oil prices, those changes may just be a pipe dream,” said state Senator William Valentine.

The bill also includes provisions that: mandate kindergarten for 5-year-olds; require daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance; allow judges the option of fining parents of truant students; and provide for more testing of students’ mastery of basic skills.

The bill requires districts to establish remediation programs for students and allow’ districts to charge non-indigent parents of high-school students for remediation work.

If the bill becomes law, it will also make New Mexico one of the first states to encode eligibility requirements for gifted-student programs into statute.

This and another provision mandating the number of hours to be spent on basic skills in primary grade!> have led to charges that the legislature is infringing on areas that are normally the purview of the elected state board.

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 1986 edition of Education Week

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