Proposals to boost literacy in N.M. will face competing budget requests

Lujan Grisham wants New Mexicans to read and is asking for millions more than what is proposed by the Legislative Finance Committee to meet that goal.

By: - January 19, 2024 4:22 am

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham unveiled her plans to boost childhood literacy. The plan would allocate $58.1 toward literacy programs and another $30 million for a literacy institute. (Photo by Megan Taros for Source NM)

Early Childhood Education Day hit the Roundhouse on Thursday. Teachers that showed up in Santa Fe made it clear to lawmakers that they want to see more support for pre-K, raises for educators and more special education support and staff.

At the same time Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham unveiled her plans to bolster literacy rates in the state, which currently ranks 50th nationwide. 

Both the governor and educators shared similar visions for education, but competing proposals paint an unclear future for this year’s education budget in New Mexico.

Lujan Grisham is asking for $30 million to start a literacy institute, which would provide resources for teachers, students and adults alike to become familiar with the fundamentals of reading and receive support. Details are sparse right now, it is even unclear where the institute would be located.

The governor’s budget also includes $58.1 million to go toward structured literacy programs. Structured literacy teaches students to decode words in a systematic way to make complex information easier to understand.

“The sad issue is that New Mexico has waited a little too long to robustly take the science of reading and make it universal,” Lujan Grisham said. “Most of the educators in this room have been navigating it on their own for so long.”

Melissa Romero, a first grade teacher in Santa Fe, said she didn’t receive sufficient training in college to help her students succeed in reading.

She enrolled in structured literacy training and said it’s made a significant difference in her classroom – but sometimes teachers in higher grade levels have to balance teaching the material and reiterating fundamentals from previous grades.

“When we put these things into practice it doesn’t just happen overnight,” Romero said. “We have to get in there and look at the kids’ progress and see where they’re starting at. These trainings are helping us prepare for the actual students we’re seeing in our classrooms. Putting the money here is where we need it.”

However, the Legislative Finance Committee budget only includes $3 million in support for structured literacy. A far cry from the governor’s request.

Other educators participating in the legislature’s Early Childhood Education Day said they want to see continued investments in pre-K, saying they noted a significant difference over time in areas like social emotional intelligence and cognitive skills as more of their students obtained early childhood education. 

“When you put children first, you see what we’re seeing now,” said Zoe Gierman, a second-grade teacher in Santa Fe. “I’m seeing kids who are ready for school at a younger age than I’ve ever seen before.”

The governor’s budget would spend $33 million to expand early childhood education. The Legislative Finance Committee has suggested $17.6 million for the same purpose.

The governor’s literacy plan also includes funding for adult education programs focused on reading. It would allocate $9.7 million to adult literacy and English as a second language instruction and $750,000 to support 18 existing, state-funded programs related to literacy.

Lujan Grisham said it’s difficult for children to learn to read when their parents or caregivers also struggle with literacy. She called for more special education and intervention support for struggling students, while educators said their schools are lacking the staff to meet the demand..

Educators and parents also want to see a reduction in the amount of students per class, which could be accomplished by addressing staffing shortages.

“There’s plenty of research showing that class size matters,” said Anna Lebrón, a speech pathologist and parent at Santa Fe Public Schools. “Even from a financial standpoint it’s smarter to downsize.”

Lebrón and others also supported a raise for educators. Lujan Grisham’s plan would increase teacher pay by 3% whereas the Legislative Finance Committee is offering a 2% raise. The Legislative Education Study Committee is asking for the most generous raise at 6%.

“Some teachers tell me it’s impossible to pay for their house and personal expenses with their salary,” said Magnolia Chavez, an at-home care provider.  “Sometimes they choose to work at fast-food restaurants because they offer better wages than that of an educator.”

Lawmakers said support for the governor’s literacy and education plans would help bring improvements to the state over time. The governor touted a 4% increase in literacy levels statewide, with a 5% increase in literacy levels in Native communities.

“Reading is so important,” said Sen. Harold Pope (D-Albuquerque). “You really can’t do much else if we don’t start here. This is where we’re really going to move the needle and make improvements in our state. At the end of the day it’s about making investments in our kids.”

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Megan Taros
Megan Taros

Megan Taros is a freelance reporter for Source NM. She is born and raised in the harbor area of Los Angeles where she began her career covering higher education and local government. She previously launched the South Phoenix beat at the Arizona Republic where she covered race and equity in one of the largest communities of color in the state. She also launched the Latino affairs beat at the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she covered racial and economic inequality in Queens, New York.