Education

New Mexico’s Gov. Johnson Vetoes Omnibus Education Package

By Jeff Archer — April 18, 2001 3 min read
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Gov. Gary E. Johnson of New Mexico has vetoed a wide-ranging bill that would have revamped his state’s teacher-licensure system and put more decisionmaking power in the hands of local schools.

Although he separately approved spending hikes for school construction and all- day kindergarten, the Republican governor killed the omnibus education package April 5. The measure, two years in the making, had passed both chambers of the legislature by wide margins last month. Many of its provisions were proposed by a panel that lawmakers created in 1999, and debate over the details occupied much of this year’s 60-day legislative session. (“Teacher-Quality Bill Comes Down To Wire in New Mexico,” March 21, 2001.)

But Mr. Johnson said the bill was “unaffordable, both now and in the future.” Backers agreed the measure carried a big price tag—$300 million over four years, by some estimates—but they pitched it as a worthy investment, and many are now vowing to push for similarly ambitious legislation in the future.

“I believe this is going to become the single most important platform for the next gubernatorial election [in 2002],” said Don Whatley, the president of the New Mexico Federation of Educational Employees, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate.

Licensing Plan Dies

The vetoed bill called for changes in everything from the state’s student-testing program to the authority given local school boards in managing their districts. It also would have given individual schools more say over hiring and budgeting.

The costliest provision called for a three-tiered teacher-licensing system that would have guaranteed minimum salaries at each level. To go from one tier to the next, educators would have had to pass a skills assessment. Under the scheme, a highly skilled teacher could have made $50,000 or more after six years in the profession. Currently, the state’s minimum salary for teachers is about $22,000.

“The national teacher shortage is hitting New Mexico in particular because of our low wages,” said Rep. Mimi Stewart, the Democratic sponsor of the House version of the bill. “It will continue to erode our ability to attract and retain good teachers by not offering them a professional licensure system.”

Backers said the measure could have been paid for by tapping into a $12 billion state fund fed by taxes on mining interests. But the fiscally conservative governor, now in his second term, was loath to do so, and he faulted the package for a lack of details.

“They had the dollar figures of how much to pay teachers, but they didn’t include the skills and competencies against which they’d be evaluated,” said Tim Walsh, a special assistant to the governor.

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce also opposed the bill. While supportive of many of its provisions, the group criticized lawmakers for failing to pass separate legislation allowing for a citizen’s referendum on whether the state’s top education official should be appointed by the governor. The state superintendent now is picked by a board that includes both elected and appointed members. The business group also said the bill would not have held schools sufficiently accountable for student performance.

“We believe strongly that New Mexico has to find a way to have the buck stop somewhere,” said Terri Cole, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.

A Win for Kindergarten

But even some supporters of the package said the legislative session was not a complete wash. In recent weeks, the governor signed an overall $1.8 billion budget for K-12 education in 2002, which includes enough money to support an 8 percent across-the-board raise in teacher salaries, and a measure that will provide mentoring to new teachers.

Mr. Johnson also put the spurs to a statewide kindergarten initiative. With the fiscal 2002 budget’s addition of $4.3 million, on top of a previous $17 million allocation, all youngsters in the state of eligible age are expected to have access to full-day kindergarten by 2003. The extra money puts the state a year ahead of the implementation schedule it set last year.

He also signed off on plans to send $400 million to local schools for building repair and modernization. The action came largely in response to a lawsuit brought by three districts serving mostly American Indian students that challenged the state’s mechanism for giving out school construction money. A state district judge last year ordered the system to be fixed.

Despite the added funds, Ron Van Amberg, a lawyer for one of the three districts, said last week that the state had failed to address the problem adequately.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as New Mexico’s Gov. Johnson Vetoes Omnibus Education Package

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