Listen to Radio ATF: Sounds of Solidarity. Our second episode is entitled “It’s Great To Be New Mexican.” Members of ATF Executive Council Sean Thomas (Executive VP), Terri Bitsie (Secretary), Sara Attleson (COPE Chair), Ellen Bernstein (President) and Dwayne Norris (VP of Membership & Involvement) compare and contrast the outcomes of the 2023 NM Legislative Session with the terrifying legislation flourishing in other states.
While Other Parts of the Country Are in Retrograde, It’s Great to be New Mexican!
Once again, our allies in the New Mexico Legislature have succeeded in keeping the most nefarious elements of the culture wars out of our classrooms, and voucher schemes out of our state, preserving equity of opportunity in our public schools.
We certainly didn’t get everything we wanted out of this session, and many would argue we got some things we didn’t want.
We can be proud of our state, however, for rejecting the malicious and damaging legislative agendas we see elsewhere. We will not allow politicians to dominate the education conversation by passing anti-gay/anti-trans legislation, stopping schools from teaching real history, banning books, and diverting public money into the voucher industrial complex.
Those victories are not enough — we cannot be satisfied just playing defense — but they are crucial victories nonetheless.
Assault on Unions
On the most basic and fundamental level, you as a New Mexican educator have collective bargaining rights. This allows your union to negotiate an enviable contract, but also gives us the collective power to lobby and advocate for laws that keep our classrooms safe and inclusive for educators to teach and students to learn. Sadly, too many New Mexican educators take the power of their union for granted. That’s not an option in other states, and recent comments by the APS Board of Education should have nonmembers who value their ability to exercise professional decision-making and democracy in their workplace scrambling to join their union like castaways to a lifeboat. A wave of teacher-blaming and union scapegoating is once again rippling across our nation.
Just look at Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis (current G.O.P. presidential front-runner) is “clamoring for fresh restrictions on unions” (see this article) that would allow for decertification even when a huge majority of teachers want to remain organized. He also seeks to stop dues deductions from educators’ paychecks.
We’ve seen this mentality before — one need only to think of Wisconsin, where Scott Walker’s attacks on unions led to a significant increase in teacher turnover and a large reduction in teacher salaries.
Really, we need not even look that far. In many other states, including our neighbors, the culture war is not only alive and well, but making divisive gains that undermine public education, students’ rights, the right to teach, and the right to organize unions. The attacks on educators and our public schools are being framed as a “parents’ rights” movement, but are, in reality, a well-funded assault financed by far-right billionaires and corporate America.
Keep the Culture Wars Out of NM Classrooms!
“The Culture Wars are fueling hostility and fear.”- AFT President Randi Weingarten from In Defense of Public Education
During the legislative season, our national union, the American Federation of Teachers, has tracked more than 120 bills with culture war themes. Although some legislators in our state introduced bills cloned from model legislation supplied by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), these were killed in committee before they could hurt our colleagues and students. That speaks volumes about the effectiveness of our union’s political activism, as the ATF’s Committee on Political Education (COPE) vets candidates so that we endorse and work for only those who support public education and workers’ rights.
If you’re wondering how you benefit by working in the Land of Enchantment, here are some big themes in the bad bills that actually have traction in many state legislatures:
- Limiting the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts” … like honest history and science;
- Allowing parents to opt kids out of lessons and vaccine requirements;
- Limiting types of institutions or professions that have defense from prosecution under obscenity laws in states like Indiana, Mississippi, and Indiana. In other words, you can be sued for the books on the shelves of your classrooms and libraries. In fact, these bills try to redefine what curriculum, books and material are considered obscene;
- Restricting age-appropriate sex education in elementary school grades and discussion of LGBTQ issues. These bills mirror Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, sadly a point of pride for DeSantis. Such legislation is now in play in Missouri and Texas. The ACLU has identified 91 education related anti-LGBTQ bills nationwide.
These bills are not coming from the grassroots, as billionaire-funded activists like Moms 4 Liberty would have you believe. They are modeled, copied, and pasted from the ALEC website, and are pushed by groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers’ “think tank” for all things anti-public education and anti-worker. They use “civil rights” language to attempt to disguise the intentions of the bills. The legislation is more polished than bills we’ve seen in the past as their sponsors attempt to make them sound as “reasonable” as possible.
As good as we have it in New Mexico, we are not immune to these types of bills sponsored by far-right extremists. In the 2023 Legislative Session Representative John Block who recently moved from northern New Mexico to Alamogordo where he would have a better chance of winning a House seat under the Trump banner sponsored a number of these poison cookie cutter bills. Here’s a list of some of legislation he sponsored or co-sponsored:
- HB 386 (co-sponsored with Republicans Tanya Mirabal-Moya, Martinez, and Luis Terrazas) which would ban the use of the word “Latinx” in schools.
- HB394 (co-sponsored with Republicans Rod Montoya and Duncan) would bar educators from discussing transgender issues with students.
- HB 487 (co-sponsored with Republicans Tanya Mirabal-Moya, Rod Montoya, Martin Zamora and Alan Martinez) which would ban the teaching of “Critical Raza Theory” without ever defining what that is.
- HB 490 ((co-sponsored with Republicans Tanya Mirabal-Moya, Rod Montoya, Martin Zamora and Alan Martinez) was another anti-trans bill.
- HB 492 (co-sponsored with Republicans Rod Montoya, Luis Terrazas, Tanya Mirabal Moya, and Alan Zamora) would “protect” women’s sports from transgender athletes.
Not one of these bills would improve the lives of New Mexicans. They are simply hate-filled political grandstanding meant to sow discord in our schools and across our state.
Another direct assault on public schools that has become prevalent across the nation are bills seeking to establish or expand vouchers for students to attend private schools or participate in home schooling. The voucher movement seeks to defund our public schools by taking money earmarked for public education and putting it into private hands through “scholarships” that parents can apply for.
This legislative session saw a move to introduce such legislation in our own state through SB 113, sponsored by “Democratic” Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino. Though the bill died during the session, it was a brazen attempt to paint vouchers as offering educational choice to students in poverty. Sen. Ortiz y Pino’s bill was directly copied from a model bill from the CATO institute, a far right “think tank” also funded by groups like the Koch Brothers, the Waltons (Wal-Mart heirs), Betsy DeVos, and others who are the major funding sources for this push to dismantle our public schools. The bill was parroted in the House by “Democrats” Patty Lundstrom and Wonda Johnson as HB 266.
Another attempt at codifying vouchers came from Senator Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho through his SB 109, Educational Freedom Accounts. This bill sought to allow the NM PED to send taxpayer funds directly to parents so that they could pay for students’ private school tuition. Although Sen. Brandt denied an on-going affiliation with ALEC- he was a member up until “ten years ago” he said- the text of the bill was almost word for word copied and pasted from the ALEC website.
Sadly, these tactics are working in some states outside New Mexico. For example:
- In Florida, DeSantis is pushing a universal voucher bill.
- Utahhas passed a $42 million expansion of that state’s voucher programs.
- Iowa has passed legislation that creates steps toward a universal voucher program.
All of this is happening while the research on vouchers is clear:
- Vouchers divert money from public schools, and most of the funds go to families whose children were never attending public schools.
- Recent studies of student achievement in Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. show vouchers harm student achievement.
- Vouchers use public dollars to encourage discrimination through lack of legal protection for educators and students, the use of problematic curricular materials (think cavemen and dinosaurs intermingling), preferential admissions practices, and an all-out assault on educators and our unions.
Further, this is all coming to pass as voters overwhelmingly continue voicing their belief in public schools.
- In a recent Hart Poll, 65% of voters said they believe that “the teachers in our public schools generally stick to teaching appropriate academic content and skills” while only 27% said “the teachers in our public schools often go too far in promoting a ‘woke’ political agenda in the classroom.”
- Likewise, 82% of voters said “teachers need to teach history and current events to prepare students to be informed citizens in a democracy” while only 18% said “teachers should avoid politically sensitive topics in the classroom because they can offend some families.”
- 80% of parents and voters agreed that we should prioritize improving public schools instead of draining them with vouchers programs.
We have a fight on our hands — but New Mexicans know what to do and how to win.
In New Mexico, we know that we can improve our public schools by continuing to address students’ needs through culturally relevant pedagogy and expanding opportunities to our students who are most at-risk. We are continuing to fund our Community Schools. We are facilitating students’ entrance into the world of work through Career and Technical Education. We are addressing staffing shortages by offering great pay and preserving educators’ voice through collective bargaining. All these initiatives are foundational positions of your union, and we will continue to fight for the great teaching and learning climate our students and educators need. That’s because our working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
Meanwhile, Legislators Who Want to Improve the Lives of New Mexicans Fight On
Pro-public education legislators did a lot more in the session than simply fighting back against the attempted reactionary retrograde described above. They led the charge to create a better future for all New Mexicans.
Many of the bills that are set to become laws were either directly suggested by or drew heavily from from our local union, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, and/or your state union, AFT New Mexico. We have written about how some of these initiatives would improve public education in publications like the ATF’s Post-Pandemic Public Education: Equity & Excellence, and AFT NM’s A Pathway Toward Educational Well-Being in New Mexico.
The bills that are now law include a 6% average raise — up from 5% to supplement expected health insurance premium increases. The word “average” is important here. When the Legislature includes that language, your union has more leeway to negotiate wages based on needs of educators and perhaps address some of the compaction issues created by raising the minimums.
We are very happy that legislators are giving all school employees an equal average percentage raise. In the past they have provided a particular percentage for “teachers” and another for “all other educators.” This is progress. Your union has worked for years to ensure all public school employees are treated equally. This addition to our raises passed the full Senate and is on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk.
Raising minimum EA salaries to $25,000 is a step in the right direction for adequately paying our classified colleagues. We are hopeful that this will help attract and retain EAs across the state — an annual goal of your local and state unions. We will continue to advocate for increases to all classified staff minimums. This bill is awaiting the signature of the Governor.
Progress on legislation can take some time. When it comes to lobbying and advocating for the best interests of our educators and students, your union is tenacious. Since AFT NM President Christine Trujillo was first elected to the House in 2013, she has worked to expand the definition of “National Board Certified Teacher” to include counselors, administrators and other educators who hold NBCT certification. In recent years, Reps. Debra Sariñana and Joanne Ferrary — and others — have joined in this quest. Much like the EA raise, we hope that counselors’ and administrators’ ability to receive this hard-earned stipend for their commitment to professional excellence will further enhance our state’s efforts to attract and retain these critical workers. The ATF will continue to advocate for getting educators paid adequately for your advanced credentials.
HB 126 changes high school graduation requirements. Your union has long advocated for Career and Technical Education credits to count toward graduation requirements. The inclusion of CTE in graduation credits will help reduce the drop-out rate and give many students a head start on their careers. The ATF has written about and advocated for modernizing our high school graduation procedures. We’d like to thank ATF member Rep. G. Andrés Romero for his work on this bill.
We know that it is imperative that students have their basic needs met before they can be ready to learn to their full potential. The ATF applauds Sens. Michael Padilla and Leo Jaramillo for their bill to provide “healthy universal school meals” to all students in New Mexico. This bill is on the Governor’s desk.
The Omnibus Tax Bill (HB 547) provides financial help to New Mexico’s working families. It includes expanding the Child Tax Credit and a tax rebate for low-income workers. There are also some increases in taxes on capital gains and alcohol and tobacco that will help to diversify our state’s revenue sources. However, this bill maintains the current tax rates of the wealthiest New Mexicans and large corporations. We will continue to work to ensure these groups pay their fair share.
We are heartened by the Legislature’s commitment to making our streets and our schools safer by passing Rep. Pamelya Herndon’s HB 9 to hold parents responsible for minors’ access to firearms. Hopefully, this bill will encourage firearms owners to safely store weapons, so they don’t end up in the hands of our students.
As we all know, democracy is built on compromise and none of us gets everything we want. Although your union has made it abundantly clear that we believe the state should consider other spending priorities, like increased staffing, instead of simply increasing the school year, the Legislature passed an amended version of HB 130. This bill increases elementary schools to 1,140 hours of instructional time with 60 hours of professional time embedded. The amended version of this bill increases instructional time for middle and high schools to 1,140 hours with 30 of those hours being devoted to professional duties. It adds 30 more hours of professional time to the 1,140. This, of course, means 1,170 hours is the minimum work time for secondary educators in New Mexico.
More Good Things that Passed in NM
Beyond the bills above, we should also celebrate:
- HB 7, Reproductive & Gender-Affirming Health Care (Reps. Serrato, Little, Ortez, Szczepanski, Anyanonu), protects access to reproductive and gender-affirming health care.
- HB 134, Menstrual Products in School Bathrooms, sponsored by (Reps. Trujillo*, Ortez, Garratt*, Lujan and Serrato), appropriates $3 million to provide menstrual products for students.
- HB 199, Increase At-Risk Funding (Reps. Baca, G.A. Romero*, Garratt*, Mirabal Moya and Harper), increases the At-Risk funding index.
- HB 207, Expand Human Rights Act Scope (Reps. Ortez, A. Romero, Hamblen, Serrato and Sen. Wirth) extends the scope of the human rights act, particularly for members of the LGBTQ community.
- HM 4, “Labor History Month” (Rep. Trujillo*) designates the month of September as Labor History Month and encourages educators across New Mexico to teach about the contributions of labor in New Mexico History.
- HM 51, Study Public School Funding Formula (Reps. Herrera, Sariñana*, Garratt*, Trujillo*, G.A. Romero*), would request the Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC), together with the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), the Public Education Department (PED), and the Public School Capital Outlay Council to complete a comprehensive analysis of the public school funding formula.
- SB 307, Licensed Teacher Prep Affordability (Stewart*), expands the eligibility of the teacher preparation affordability scholarship to include licensed teachers; removing the requirement that an eligible student be enrolled at least half-time; providing technical cleanup.
- SB 397, School-Based Health Centers (Rodriguez, Trujillo*), enacts a new section of the public health act to create and operate school-based health centers.
We want to give a special shout out to these legislators who are current or retired ATF/AFT NM members:
- House Ed. Committee Chair Representative G. Andrés Romero, social studies teacher at Atrisco Heritage Academy HS
- House Ed. Committee Vice Chair Representative Joy Garratt, retired APS teacher
- Representative Christine Trujillo, retired APS teacher and former president of AFT NM
- Representative Natalie Figueroa, Spanish teacher at Volcano Vista HS
- Representative Debra Sariñana, retired APS teacher
- Representative Liz Thomson, retired APS physical therapist
- Representative Willie Madrid, retired educational assistant
- Representative Miguel Garcia, retired APS teacher
- Senate Majority Leader Senator Mimi Stewart, retired APS teacher