SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s next governor will inherit simmering discontent over teacher pay and evaluations, urgent calls to expand early childhood schooling and a lawsuit that may put the judiciary in charge of pivotal education funding decisions.
The three Democratic contenders in the June 5 primary are pitching solutions to rock-bottom student rankings in math proficiency and literacy. They all agree with the sole Republican candidate, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, that improving public education is a lynchpin for addressing grinding poverty in a state with the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate.
The debate is about what needs to happen next.
Election-year proposals range from lengthening the school year to trade union apprenticeships and providing art and music instruction in all schools.
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The three Democrats are rallying voters around variations of a plan to broaden access to preschool and other early childhood programs by taking more from the state’s multi-billion dollar education trust fund that’s supported by oil and natural resources development.
“If we don’t join the other states in this country by offering universal early childhood education, we are not going to turn around the childhood and educational outcomes that will lead to everyone’s economic success,” U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a recent debate.
She’s running against the other Democrats, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces and former media executive Jeff Apodaca, the son of former Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who ran the state from 1975 through 1978.
New Mexico’s public schools depend heavily on state funding and with the oil sector booming again, a $560 million surge in tax revenues and royalties since last summer could help translate campaign pledges into reality.
On the final day of spring classes, parents in Santa Fe praised a state-funded program that extends the school year by five weeks for thousands of students as they adjust to elementary school.
Carmella Trujillo said her three adopted children have found solid footing at Gonzales Community School as a result.
“It really got them established, especially before kindergarten,” said Trujillo, a 57-year-old single mom who works as an accountant. “It kept them strong for the next school year. They didn’t lose any ground over the summer.”
Among the Democratic candidates, Cervantes has campaigned to extend the year for all students and compensate teachers for the additional hours. Like other candidates, he talks about reforming teacher evaluations, saying his experience as a businessman and lawmaker has made him adept at requiring accountability.
With the endorsement of major education unions, Lujan Grisham believes she can break a stalemate in the Democrat-led Legislature to increase distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education.
Apodaca casts himself as a disruptor, promising to shake up the teacher evaluation process, reduce class sizes, increase teacher pay and boost high school vocational training. He wants to shift more than $200 million in administrative spending back to the classrooms.
Outgoing Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and her administration are citing improvements in high school graduation rates as they clamp down on poorly performing schools. They’re also racing to enact rules to hold young children back a grade if they cannot read proficiently.
Statewide graduation rates still lag behind the nation, and parents have been left to compete in admission lotteries and crowd waiting lists for top-performing schools.
Jazmin Cota rejoiced at the graduation ceremony for the Academy for Technology and the Classics in Santa Fe. Her son, the first in her family to attend college, has a scholarship to a liberal arts college in Wisconsin.
A Mexican immigrant and cafeteria worker, Cota said her son’s academic life was transformed by rigorous work at the charter school geared toward college preparation.
Other public school students aren’t as fortunate.
“Many of my friends tell me what luck my son had, that they wished their children had been in the same school,” she said.
Across the state, just one-fifth of students in grades 3-11 demonstrated proficiency in math on the most recent annual standardized tests, while 29 percent were proficient in language arts. Education Weekly’s Quality Counts evaluation ranked New Mexico second-to-last behind Mississippi in academics.
Courts are being called upon to shore up funding for New Mexico public schools as part of a long battle waged by parents, school districts and advocacy groups who accuse the state of neglect.
A ruling expected soon could reshape funding and education policies for English-language learners, Native American youth and students from low-income families. State lawmakers and the governor sought to blunt the litigation with increases to school budgets and teacher compensation.
Jodee Chavez, a second-grade teacher at Turquoise Trail Charter Elementary School in Santa Fe, said that hasn’t quieted dissatisfaction among teachers.
“I would hate for the next governor to deal with a walkout,” she said. “We might be next, unless there is something done.”
This story has been corrected to provide the correct spelling of Jerry Apodaca’s first name.