Proclaiming 2006 “the year of the child,” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called on the state legislature last week to improve and expand preschool programs, pass policies that help prepare students for college, and address the health of the state’s children.
In the final year of his first term, the Democrat ticked off his proposals during his Jan. 17 State of the State Address, while also pointing to the progress he said the state has made during his tenure in improving teacher quality, raising teacher pay, and expanding pre-K opportunities.
The governor’s hopes are bolstered by projections that the state will have a $500 million budget surplus in the current fiscal year.
“It’s a very aggressive budget proposal and a very aggressive agenda,” said state Sen. Vernon D. Asbill, a Republican member of the education committee. He added that while the governor’s proposals were for the most part well received, he faulted the governor’s plan for not using some of the new revenue as a cushion against new taxes.
Read a complete transcript of Gov. Bill Richardson’s 2006 State of the State address. Posted by New Mexico’s Office of the Governor. .
“One disappointment was there was not money set aside to put into the permanent fund for the future of New Mexico,” the senator said.
Adding that there is much room for improvement, the governor proposed doubling the annual state appropriation for prekindergarten, beginning in fiscal 2007, to $10 million a year, and adding $1.5 million in one-time spending for various items.
The extra aid would double preschool access for nearly 3,000 children. According to the New Mexico education department, the program could serve up to 12 percent of all 4-year-old children in the state, and would include, for the first time, funds for instructional materials and transportation.
Gov. Richardson’s plan also includes preschool funds for professional development, program evaluation, and technical assistance. In addition, new start-up funds would pay for developmentally appropriate equipment and safety improvements in 72 preschool classrooms, at an average cost of $20,000 per classroom.
He is also requesting $2.5 million for the education department for facilities and another $2.5 million for facilities through the Children, Youth, and Families Department.
To address the problem of overcrowded schools, the governor outlined a plan to build new schools in some of the state’s fastest-growing areas, such as Deming, Las Cruces, and Gadsden.
The plan would involve investing over $1 billion in “newer, better, and more modern schools” over the next four years, he said in his address.
And to improve teacher quality, the governor is calling for a 6 percent, across-the-board pay increase for teachers. In the 2003-04 school year, the average teacher salary in New Mexico was $38,469, compared with the national average of $46,597.
The governor also proposed replacing the state’s high school exit exam with a new one that would better prepare New Mexico high school students for college.
“To make sure New Mexico students are fully prepared, I call for a new commitment to match high school curricula with college-entrance exams,” said Mr. Richardson, who served as U.S. Secretary of Energy under President Clinton. “The tests to get out of high school should match the tests to get into college.”
He also asked the legislature to support appropriating $50 million for the fledgling College Affordability endowment, which would finance need-based scholarships for students who cannot afford tuition at state colleges and universities. The legislature approved the endowment last year, but did not fund it.
The health of New Mexico’s children was another focus of the governor’s speech.
“Physical activity and nutrition are also critical elements to keeping New Mexico’s children healthy and fit,” he said.
He proposed hiring 200 additional physical education teachers to support his goal of having every elementary student in the state receive physical education at least once a day.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week