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More Funding for Our Schools – But Not More of the Same

by: Mary Parr-Sánchez

These past two years have been incredibly hard on New Mexico’s schools, students, and educators. It may be tempting to believe that many of the issues we currently face are new problems or are solely the result of our current circumstances. As a middle school teacher for 25 years, a mother of four public-school-educated children, and now President of the organization tasked with representing educators across the state of New Mexico, I can tell you this is not the case.  

  

While it’s true that schools across the country have struggled during this time, this crisis has revealed the particularly vulnerable condition that New Mexico’s public education system is in. For decades, our under-funded and under-staffed school system has been failing many of our students, their families, and their communities. As the dedicated voice that knows firsthand about our students, educators have been saying it for years: fund our school system, end the teacher shortage crisis, ensure staff have the time to offer students one-on-one attention and tailor-made supports. While a great deal of important work has been done under Governor Lujan-Grisham’s administration to make up for the years of financial and political neglect, even more remains to be done. We need to adopt an innovative and transformative new approach to ensuring all New Mexico’s students not only have what they need to survive, but also to thrive. 

Just as other professionals should be heeded as experts in their line of work, so too must educators be treated as experts in their classrooms and be given a central role in shaping the future of education. NEA-NM has developed a list of 5 key issues that educators believe should be prioritized in future legislative sessions: 

 

The first key issue is Class Sizes and Adequate Staffing. Students are not able to have their individual needs met when class sizes exceed statutory class size limits and when educators are stretched thin by inadequate staffing. Class size waivers and misleading class size averaging must be eliminated. To adequately staff our classrooms, we must bring in varied high-quality professionals who can give students individualized support, respond to their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, support their physical and mental health needs, and inspire joy, creativity, and critical thinking. 

  

The second key issue is Planning Time. Research from around the globe shows us that the education systems with the most high-performing students are those that ensure educators have ample time to prepare and analyze lessons, develop and evaluate assessments, observe other classrooms, and meet with students and parents. The COVID-19 pandemic has further demonstrated the need for adequate planning time for educators in our state, who overwhelmingly work with underserved student populations that require additional one-on-one attention to overcome. 

  

The third key issue is Educator Wages. Our state is facing an acute teacher shortage crisis that is only growing worse during this pandemic, with many exiting the profession to retire or because of teacher burnout, and few entering. One of the most effective ways to recruit and retain high-quality educators is to ensure all public school employees make a living wage and end the pay penalty whereby educators make 30% less than nonteacher college graduates. We must offer competitive wages that compensate educators for their qualifications.  

  

The fourth key issue is Healthcare. This issue takes on new weight in the context of the ongoing pandemic. Faced with rising health insurance premiums, expensive copays, and declining benefits, many educators fear the affordability of life-saving care. The critical link between educator mental and physical wellbeing and student outcomes has been well established: when educators are happy and healthy, they are better at their jobs, less likely to experience burnout, and more likely to remain in the education profession. 

  

The fifth key issue is Community Schools. Many of our communities are struggling from historic marginalization, families often feel disconnected from our education system, and many of our students do not have their basic needs met and are struggling with mental and physical health issues. Community Schools are a vehicle for change that offer an opportunity for educators to get what they need for their classrooms and their worksites. We need sustainable recurring funding to make the community school strategy accessible to all schools in our state. 

  

Finally, the time to act is now! As damaging as the pandemic has been to students, educators, families, schools, and communities, the crisis also presents a unique opportunity to capitalize on the unprecedented attention our public schools are currently receiving in order to overhaul the system and build a new, more equitable and effective one in its place. The moment of possibility is upon us, when federal funds from the American Rescue Plan are available for real, positive change and before our society forgets the lessons learned by our children’s struggles during the pandemic. Educators have used their expertise to draw out a road map to success for our state’s education system; isn’t it about time we listened to them?