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Commentary: Teacher pay increase is needed following higher revenue

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Teacher pay increase is needed following higher revenue

Christopher Ruszkowski

By almost every annual measure, public education is on the rise in New Mexico. The lion’s share of credit goes to the educational leaders and excellent teachers in our districts and schools that embrace reform opportunities, act decisively upon their student achievement data and hold high expectations for every child. There are too many districts and schools to name, but in traveling statewide, I’ve witnessed incredible progress for kids from Gallup to Alamogordo, Clovis to Cobre, Farmington to Hobbs, from Belen on down to Gadsden.

As a general rule, schools improving student outcomes are maximizing every public resource made available. Districts like Texico maximize the percentage of their budgets flowing to the classroom as opposed to administration, ensure that students extend time-on-task, and modernize outdated 20th century policies and practices. Student-centered priorities are matched with targeted resources — the dollars follow the student.

We should expect that in every district and school receiving a share of the approximately $3 billion in state and federal funds distributed each year.

In that spirit, Gov. Susana Martinez and the Public Education Department have proposed a budget that finds the appropriate balance between championing our teachers, responding to feedback regarding operational costs and investing in what gets results. With additional revenues now available, we can do all three. The proposed $70 million increase for public school support does just that.

First and foremost, we believe that more than half the increase should find its way into the pockets of those who matter most for student outcomes: our teachers. Our budget calls for giving them a larger raise than any other proposal. New Mexico has raised expectations and elevated the teaching profession over the past five years — with higher academic standards, increased starting salaries, meaningful evaluation, teacher-leadership opportunities and major investments in professional development.

The time is now to increase teacher salaries across the board by 2 percent.

Simultaneously, rewarding and retaining our highest-performing educators is critical, notably in high-need subject areas like math and science. That is why we’ve coupled the 2 percent teacher salary increase with Excellence in Teaching Awards. We can get both done for our profession this session.

Our second-largest proposed increase is for operational costs, such as transportation, instructional materials and dual-credit participation for students taking college-level courses. These recommendations are in direct response to stakeholder input.

New Mexico has the distinction of funding our school system equitably, something that other states have failed to achieve for years. Albuquerque Public Schools, for example, generates about $600 million in state funds, with student needs factored in via different multipliers. Our call to legislators and taxpayers is to expect student growth from these dollars, as well. Let’s take note of what’s working in all aspects of the education budget, not just programs that draw the ire of special interest groups.

New Mexico’s targeted programs have yielded outsized student achievement results and improved schools in tangible ways. The largest programs, pre-K and K-3 Plus, when implemented correctly, have shown promising results in early literacy. Our $8 million proposed increase for pre-K builds on this administration’s massive expansion of meaningful early childhood education. The Truancy & Dropout Prevention Coach program has more kids attending, and staying, in school. And Principals Pursuing Excellence, with 184 participating schools to date, is the standard bearer for school turnaround nationwide. Such programs comprise about 3 percent of the education budget, yet unfortunately dominate 99 percent of the political debate.

Growing these investments is a must-have for our schools — they continue to break ground in showing us what actually works.

Our recommendation represents a responsible stewardship of state resources. Linked with strong accountability, the nation’s top-rated state plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and a constant review of the educational landscape to identify best practices, these additional dollars will be put to good use. No one will be let off the hook for delivering student outcomes — and we’ll continue to raise the bar and get results for our children.

Christopher Ruszkowski is the Education Secretary-Designate for the State of New Mexico.

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