Proposed teacher raises would make New Mexico competitive

Cedar Attanasio
Associated Press / Report For America
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a news conference in Santa Fe, July 29, 2021. Grisham wants to make teacher salaries the highest among neighboring states. Tapping into a glut of oil and gas tax revenue, the state is proposing raising educator salaries by between 7% and 20%, depending on their role and level of experience, at a cost of around $275 million.

SANTA FE - New Mexico wants to attract more teachers as part of a government-wide spending spree fueled by taxes from surging oil and gas revenues.

"They're going to be the highest-paid individuals in any state near us," Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico teachers in a call with educators on Friday.

Lujan Grisham is proposing increases in the minimum pay for teachers across three tiers of experience levels. Minimum salaries for entry-level teachers would increase from $41,000 to $50,000. That would make starting teachers the highest paid in the region unless other states raise wages before the fall.

In Texas, for example, starting salaries average around $44,500. 

"Let's also remind ourselves that all of our surrounding state legislatures are raising salaries as well," New Mexico Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus told a legislative committee Thursday, calling the salary competition between the states a "shell game."

School districts in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas set their pay scales in different ways, so they can be hard to compare.

In New Mexico, pay is tied closely to tiers based on completing professional development benchmarks. In Texas, years of experience are more important. In rural Colorado, teachers can make way less than their neighbors in rural New Mexico, because minimums are lower.

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Lujan Grisham's budget tracks closely with the ones proposed by the education department and the Legislature's most important spending committee. They call for around $250-300 million in raises including a 7% minimum raise for all categories of school workers, from janitors to principals. That would offset nationwide inflation of around 6.8%.

New salary minimums could boost teacher salaries by as much as 20%, including $60,000 for mid level teachers and $70,000 for those with the highest level of professional development.

The governor also proposes extending minimum salary guarantees to Indigenous language and culture teachers, who often don't meet the educational requirements to be paid as full-fledged teachers, despite doing similar work.

If Lujan Grisham's budget is approved, it will likely mean New Mexico has competitive salaries for entry level teachers, and on average, with its biggest rival, Texas.

That state, which borders New Mexico to the East and South, has large school districts that compete for talent with medium-sized districts in New Mexico. 

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Its average starting salary is $44,582, according to NEA data, comparable to the proposed salary increase by Lujan Grisham.

There are no planned changes to the minimum salary, Texas Education Agency said in a statement Friday, and the Texas legislature isn't meeting this year. 

States often pay teachers more to work more. In 2019, Texas created the Teacher Incentive Allotment program, which can help teachers earn over $100,000 per year depending on a combination of experience and how economically disadvantaged the area they work in is.

In New Mexico, there are fewer performance incentives, but teachers can earn 10-25 days of extra pay at their salary level if their district adds extra time to the school year. Last year, many districts declined to participate in the program, citing teacher and parent burnout during the pandemic.

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In a story published January 7, 2022, about proposed teacher pay raises in New Mexico, The Associated Press erroneously reported that the Texas legislature is not meeting next year. It's not meeting this year, but is meeting in 2023. The article also erroneously described a Texas teacher pay program that can boost salaries to $100,000 as "COVID-mitigation." Texas' Teacher Incentive Allotment program, as it is called, was established by the Texas Legislature in 2019, before the pandemic. 

Cedar Attanasio contributed to this report. He is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.