What an argument to have — not whether teacher salaries should be increased in New Mexico, but by how much.
That’s a sign of New Mexico’s robust cash flow — thanks, oil and gas — but also a realization by the people in charge that without raising teacher pay, the shortage of trained educators will grow.
And make no mistake, the number one thing that lawmakers, parents, communities and all concerned about education can do is this: Keep great teachers and attract prospective teachers who will become great.
It’s deceptively simple but also challenging.
The stagnant New Mexico economy and budget shortfalls of recent years meant that educators and other state workers did not receive adequate pay increases. Costs went up, too, with teachers paying more toward retirement and health care expenses, effectively cutting salaries. Pressure mounted. Testing, evaluations, continual second-guessing and criticism made teaching a profession too many bright students decided to avoid.
Now, New Mexico has to regroup — and raising pay is one way to attract teachers and keep experienced ones. Next year, New Mexico will spend upward of $7.6 billion, depending on which version of the budget is adopted. It’s the right time to boost teacher pay.
Speaker Brian Egolf wants a 10 percent increase — and perhaps it’s political posturing, as conservative Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith claims. However, there are few better ways to attract talent than paying them adequately.
Smith, who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, likely could block significant raises in the 30-day session, which starts next week. Why would he want to? Improving the quality of education in New Mexico is the single most important thing the state can do for its future. That won’t happen without teachers.
All the important players understand that raises for teachers should be a part of the budget session. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed 4 percent and the powerful Legislative Finance Committee presented a 3 percent possible raise. Rather than debating how low the raises should be, state leaders should work for the best raises possible — while figuring out how to pay for them, of course. Paying teachers more is the right approach. Starting pay for teachers reached $41,000 after last year’s raise of 6 percent.
Another increase might lure retirees back to the classroom. Santa Fe Superintendent Veronica García is calling recently retired teachers personally to woo them, doubling down on her effort to make sure all classrooms have licensed educators.
While that sounds like it should be a given, having a trained teacher cannot be taken for granted in New Mexico right now.
Charles Goodmacher, with the National Education Association-New Mexico, wrote recently that the teacher shortage must be described as a “crisis” for the situation to improve. With more than 640 positions statewide filled by substitutes, a lot of children don’t have the teacher they deserve.
Increasing pay is but one way to attract and keep teachers. More has to happen at the state and district level to support teachers. Too many teachers simply don’t survive those difficult first years. Programs that provide them with mentors and offer in-class assistance must be expanded and improved.
Many new teachers enter the profession through the alternative licensure program, with that percentage growing from 4 percent of teachers in New Mexico in 2014-15 to 12 percent in 2018-19. But research shows teachers who enter the profession in alternative ways also quit at higher rates, according to Education Week. Such turnover is hardly good for students.
Traditional education programs, meanwhile, will start attracting applicants if salaries increase. Even before college, educators at the middle school and high school levels can spotlight the advantages of teaching. Too many young people don’t consider teaching as a first choice for a career; when that changes, then the teacher shortage will decrease.
Teachers make a difference in the lives of children, which is the biggest reason people want to become educators. They know their work will have impact over a lifetime. They don’t do it for the money. But that's no reason to shortchange them.
Raising teacher pay is one of the smartest ways to spend the oil and gas windfall. This shouldn't be a matter of posturing but of setting priorities. Now, the question is simply this: How much?