New Mexico’s Legislature must get back to basics and focus on the 3 Rs:
This is the only way to honor our New Mexico public educators and provide our students with the education they deserve.
New Mexico’s schools are at critical juncture due to the historic level of vacancies across all positions in our system of public education. Unless lawmakers in New Mexico enact bold remedies to address this looming crisis, we risk jeopardizing the education of generations of New Mexico’s students.
There are more than 1,000 vacant licensed positions across our State, and teacher vacancies are only the tip of the iceberg. These 1,000 vacancies alone represent over 20,000 of New Mexico’s students without a high-quality, well-trained, permanent classroom teacher.
The on-going COVID-19 pandemic is only exacerbating this crisis, and veteran educators are retiring at alarming and unsustainable levels, further placing our State’s already fragile educational system in jeopardy.
We are not alone in this crisis. Forty percent of school districts across the United States report severe or severe staffing shortages which range from classroom teachers and essential and related services providers to classified employees like custodians, educational assistants, clerical workers, transportation professionals, cafeteria staff, and all the other positions that make our schools run.
Furthermore, the staffing shortages disproportionately impact students of color and those living below the poverty line. For New Mexico to resolve the issues identified in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit (2018), drastic action must be taken. Quality and sufficient staffing are at the heart of Judge Singleton’s ruling:
“Native American and ELL students, including the New Mexico Indian Education Act, Bilingual Multicultural Education Act, and the Hispanic Education Act, which has resulted in an inadequate education system for New Mexican students.
In violation of the state constitution, the state has failed to provide students with the programs and services that it acknowledges prepare them for college and career. Such programs and services include: quality PreK, K-3 Plus, extended learning, dual language, culturally and linguistically relevant education, social services, small class sizes, and sufficient funding for teacher recruitment, retention, and training.
Lack of funds is not an excuse for denying New Mexico’s students a sufficient education. The state must come up with the necessary funding to meet New Mexico students' right to a sufficient education.
The PED has failed to meet its oversight functions to ensure that all students are receiving the programs and services they need.”
And that’s only our K-12 educational settings. Early education classrooms as well as our colleges and universities also suffer from persistent vacancies. Too few New Mexicans, whether they be recent high school graduates or those seeking a second career see education as a viable, respected profession that can provide for their families, keep themselves healthy, and provide a dignified retirement after many years of service.
This is an unparalleled staffing crisis which is not unique to New Mexico, but New Mexico can be a leader in stemming the exodus of educators from the classroom.
Root Causes of Our Shared Crisis
Educators are leaving their professions in droves. Why? While low pay is certainly a factor, the primary reasons are overwhelming workloads that have increased exponentially because of shortages, poor working conditions, and a lack of respect for our professional knowledge.
As we are asked to shoulder the responsibilities of managing students, classes, and school functions during the pandemic, we are beset by additional work mandated by districts and the NM PED. Educational assistants are tasked with stepping in to cover vacancies in classrooms, which addresses the classroom vacancy in the short term, but deprives other students from the more individualized attention they deserve and should be receiving from that same educational assistant.
We struggle to educate our students in sweltering classrooms during the ever-expanding summer months and in freezing conditions during the winter. Equally challenging is an aging fleet of buses without proper maintenance, safety features, and air conditioning. Our state has the funding and ability to modernize our educational buildings and facilities, and yet, political leaders failed to act.
Educators’ professional judgment is called into question by out-of-state groups who claim to “know what’s best” for New Mexico’s students. But the reality is New Mexico’s real educational experts are your friends, neighbors, and fellow community members. No scripted, on-line, or corporate-produced program can replicate skilled educators who look like and share our students’ and communities’ shared history and values. Only well-prepared and well-respected educators can deliver the education New Mexico’s students deserve.
We need to invest in the people who make our schools work. It is educators who will make the difference and set our schools on the right course, from early education through college or career.
New Mexico’s lawmakers must furnish them with the pay, tools, and respect to make this reality.
THE 3Rs FOR NEW MEXICO EDUCATORS
Educators have demonstrated long before and during the pandemic that we will serve our students regardless of what it takes. If New Mexico wants to recruit and retain quality educators, all successful paths forward must be built on a foundation of professional respect for those who serve our students every day.
Working in education should be an attractive career choice. We can make careers in education more attractive with investments in scholarships, residency programs, and student loan forgiveness. Recruitment is tied to respect—when we are respected, more educators will join us.
We love our careers, we love working with our students, and we believe in public education. Educators need a reason to stay and keep our public education system moving forward. New Mexico can retain quality educators by supporting substantial raises and meaningful efforts to ensure the well-being of educators' families and their future.