New Mexico has always had a particular love for education.
A peek into the doors of the Legislature in Santa Fe this session would indicate to one just how energized the education arena has become.
Around every corner there seem to be more and more bills addressing a variety of education issues, everything from changes to the state’s Lottery Scholarship to salaries for teachers to allowing high school students to take classes at four-year institutions that would count for both high school graduation requirements and future college credit.
What’s most amazing is the many education measures are all being pitched during a time when the state is facing several tough issues, not the least of which is a difficult funding decision concerning Medicaid.
DWI legislation and what to do about the state’s meth problem are also sticky issues that lawmakers will need to address.
But education seems to still be an area that rules — and that’s during a session when lawmakers are supposed to be focused on the budget.
“Education is probably the most important thing that legislators look at each year,” said Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales.
Last week, legislation was introduced that would deem a student truant when there are five unexcused absences within 20 days. The idea of the legislation is to provide a uniform definition of truancy.
With 10 or more unexcused absences during a school year the student would be dubbed a “habitual truant.”
It would be decided at the local level which excused absences would be allowable.
While the legislation would look at implementing a statewide code to follow, Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, said she liked decisions to be made locally.
“I think we are better off when more decisions are made at the local level,” she said. “We don’t all have the same problems. Some areas may be worse than others. The local areas are where these things should be addressed.”
Neil Nuttall, superintendent of the Clovis School District, said he would support a statewide code that could encourage district attorneys to enforce truancy measurements.
“We have our district attorney working with us to keep kids in school,” he said. “I have talked to a lot of superintendents across the state and truancy depends a lot of the time with how local people help with it.”
Crook said she thought student attendance came down to parents making sure their children were coming to school.
“I know a school’s funding is heavily based on attendance,” she said. “The more students they have in school, the more funding they get. But this issue comes down to a parent’s obligation that their kids are in school.”
Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, whose district includes both Curry and Roosevelt counties, said it’s important that the entire state is on the same page.
“We need to have a statewide consensus on how to manage this,” she said. “School boards need to have input into the decision. I think we need to address truancy, but I do think that we need everyone’s perspective on it, also.”
Nuttall said it’s difficult to ask teachers in the classroom to raise their students’ performances when children aren’t attending class.
“Anything that stiffens up laws to keep kids in school, I am for,” he said.
A House education committee this week called for even more money for education this year — 6 percent — or about $20 million.
It’s good news to educators, but what that slice of the pie would mean for the rest of the state may not be such good news.
As part of the measure, public school teachers and other educational employees would receive a 2 percent pay raise.
Lawmakers and educators are applauding the increase in salaries.
However, there is still debate over whether a reoccurring salary increase or a one-time bonus is a better way to go.
“The bottom line is that this all comes down to money,” Crook said. “By giving a 2 percent increase you have to find the money to continue it. With a bonus you can do it one time. If you don’t have the money the next time around, you aren’t committed.”
Kernan is against bonuses.
“Salary increases are better than bonuses,” she said. “Certainly salary increases are in the best interest of our teachers.”
Rep. Jose Campos, D-Santa Rosa, said he thought one-time money should be used for projects.
“Bonuses are not favorable for employees,” he said. “When I look at raises, it’s a reoccurring expense. One-time funds should go to projects that would create revenue for a state. I do support the 2 percent increase for teaches.”
Nuttall said he didn’t think the bonus was as effective as a salary increase.
Last year’s salary increase for teachers from lawmakers of 6 percent was not fully funded by the state, Nuttall said.
“We had to come up with $400,000,” he said. “The state needs to be sure to fully fund the raise they give or the bonus. It’s better for the employee, though, if it’s a salary increase.”
Eastern New Mexico University President Steve Gamble said he would take whatever the Legislature gives.
“We want more money for our people,” he said. “But we understand that the state is under incredible pressure.”
Kernan said she wasn’t sure the raises were enough, but people needed to realize how tough money was.
“Educators can play a part in what their salary is,” she said. “If they do things like further their education, the table increases their salaries. But honestly, I don’t know if the increase is enough, but money is tight. Medicaid is tight.”
Ingle said he wanted to help the education field all that he could.
“The increase that is on the table for education will be modified,” he said. “I’m sure the Senate will take a hard look at it.”
A bill that will let high school students take credit at four-year institutions and then use that credit for both college and high school graduation is being applauded as a good move.
The bill passed the Senate Education Committee this week.
But it’s still unclear who would have to pay for the student’s college tuition.
“We need to be careful of the expenditure,” Nuttall said. “If the student is getting credit, the cost should be with the student.”
Nuttall said an education lobbyist is looking into who would cover the cost.
“When I read the bill it wasn’t clear to me as to who would pay for it,” he said.
Students who take college credit courses could possibly use the Lottery Scholarship and even financial aid, some believe.
“If the doors for financial aid are open earlier, I think that would be a great opportunity for our kids,” Nuttall said.
While there may be questions about who would pay the costs, local educators agree the opportunity for the student is a good one.
“The student wins twice,” Gamble said. “It’s a good deal.”
Kernan said gifted students would benefit from the program.
“A student who has completed all of their requirements for high school and still wants to have their high school experience could go to Eastern and take some courses and get ahead,” she said.
Nuttall applauded opportunities for high school students to get college-level experience and said Clovis Community College’s efforts with the school district were appreciated.
“Currently, students can take CCC classes on our campus,” he said. “CCC has really reached out to our students. But this legislation would take this even further.”
Gamble said many of the issues facing higher education institutions are still in the introductory stages.
Educators will be watching closely next week when a House committee discusses proposed changes to the Lottery Scholarship. Since 1997, it has provided scholarships for some 22,000 students.
Gov. Bill Richardson has proposed that some funds from the lottery go to need-based financial aid for students.
Other ideas that have been pitched include letting students take advantage of the scholarship even if they don’t attend college for 18 months after graduating from high school.
Gamble said he will be at next week’s meeting in Santa Fe where the scholarship will be addressed.
“I will go to the meeting and if I feel compelled to say anything I will,” he said. “I will study the proposals some more.”
Gamble said the top proposal on the table is the governor’s.
“I will study all of the proposals in detail,” he said.
The committee will probably pass a resolution at next week’s meeting.
Gamble said there still has been much talk from officials concerning cuts to a program that gives Texas residents who live within 135 miles of New Mexico to get in-state tuition rates.
As part of Richardson’s budget, he’s proposing a significant cut to that funding.
Gamble has said in the past that the university would still offer the program and eat the cost.
“It’s still in the discussion stages,” he said. “There are numerous compromises on the table. It’s best for the state of New Mexico and certainly for ENMU if this program doesn’t get cut.”
Money for ENMU
The university has numerous items on its wish list this session. Many of the items are low-dollar requests.
But Gamble said no matter what the price tag, they are all needed.
One item would provide thousands of dollars for new equipment for the university’s new communications building.
The building would house KEWN, the university’s television station, and a NPR radio station along with its communication classrooms.
“We need equipment for that building,” he said.
One of Crooks’ bills would provide ENMU with $50,830 to purchase a journalism and public relations system.
Crook is a graduate of ENMU and serves on their foundation board.
“For a number of years we’ve had a strong communications department and we attract students from other parts of the country because of our strong department.”
The university is also trying to get equipment for its distance-learning program.
Ingle submitted a bill for $200,000 for that project.
It would allow undergraduate and graduate courses to be telecommunicated to Hobbs, Ruidoso, Tucumcari, Carlsbad, Cannon Air Force Base and Raton.
“It’s important to students who are place-bound and can’t leave,” Gamble said. “The money would provide much better technology than we have now. It would greatly expand the places that we go to.”
David Arkin covers the Legislature for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. He is a former Freedom editor and reporter. He can be reached at