Just months after New Mexico lawmakers cut school funding in the state by $30 million, Governor Bill Richardson flew to San Diego today, from Cape Cod, where he is vacationing for 11 days, to accept the National Education Association's "America's Greatest Education Governor Award." The annual award recognizes governors who have made major state-level education strides that improve public schools.
While Richardson received the NEA award in California, teachers here in New Mexico are headed to court. They are battling a legislative decision to to close the state budget gap by increasing the amount teachers contribute to their pension plan.
During his acceptance speech in San Diego, Richardson told the NEA Union assembly that education has been his administration's top priority since he was first elected in 2002.
From increasing teacher pay, to ensure that we recruit and retain the best and brightest, to better preparing our kids by implementing a statewide preK program, I’m proud of the reforms we’ve made.Richardson told the crowd (listen here) that he believes his education reforms will be a part of his eight-year gubernatorial legacy.
The governor, who only has 18 months left in his administration, got a warm reception when he said (listen here) that it's time to completely change the "No Child Left Behind," program. Richardson also said state's can't afford to stop spending money on educational reforms (listen here), because education, he believes, is the key to the nation's economic future (listen here).
Federal Stimulus Money Not For Teacher Raises
NEA-New Mexico president Sharon Morgan said New Mexico received a bundle of stimulus money for education, but teachers still took a hit:
The legislature still cut school funding in New Mexico by $30 million, and that's a problem. We believe we could be using stimulus money to make up that difference.Lawmakers say across-the-board cuts were the only fair way to close the budget gap, but the NEA says investing in education pays bigger dividends down the road and helps the state weather downturns.
But Richardson told the NEA assembly he doesn't believe that states should balance their budgets on teacher's backs (listen here).
In May, Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, who was touting President Barack Obama's first 100 days in office, told Barbara Wold at DFNM, "New Mexico has received $450 million in education for pre-school through college to help with funding shortfalls."
Our job is to make sure the dollars are well spent. Most importantly, what we've seen is that times are tough and these funds can't come at a better time for those working for education.In a good economy, millions of dollars for state education programs come from the State Land Office. It has seen a decline in money from a drop in oil and gas revenues over the last year.
Lawmakers say across-the-board cuts were the only fair way to close the budget gap, but the NEA says investing in education pays bigger dividends down the road and helps the state weather downturns.
The teacher's union isn't the only group criticizing the administration and lawmakers for reducing the budget.
State GOP spokeswoman Janel Causey said this Education Week report ranks the state's drop out rate 48th nationally. The report says only 56% of high school students in the class of 2006 graduated.
The NM Secretary of Education Dr. Veronic Garcia says criticism like that is unfair. "One statistic cannot be a grade for our entire educational system," Garcia said.KOB TV 4 reporter Cris Ornelas talked to prospective republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Weh. Weh told Ornelas, "On education, Richardson and Denish have failed and they failed miserably."
But leaders at the NEA said Richardson stands out "for extending kindergarten to a full day and for raising teacher salaries."
The NEA's representative assembly, meeting in Southern California through Monday, is considering a blueprint for fixing the No Child Left Behind law which is up for renewal in congress this year according to Morgan.
She said a big part of the plan is adding more flexibility: "We would be able to measure growth rather than just a standardized test score. We all know students who don't test well, and no matter how great their teacher is, they may not test well."
The group is also working on a 12-point dropout prevention plan, and one part of the plan has been gaining traction in recent lawmaking sessions in Santa Fe, adds Morgan.
"It's having more individual attention to our students, so that they have smaller, safe schools, or if they're in a large school, smaller learning communities and smaller classes."
NEA President Dennis Van Roekel presented the award to Governor Richardson:
Governor Richardson speaks up on issues that affect children, and he follows up the talk with action,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of NEA. “Realizing the impact early childhood education has on long-term success, he extended kindergarten programs to full-day classes. Despite criticism, he advocated for and passed a law to provide free preK for 4-year-olds.In addition to his early childhood education efforts, the award recognized Governor Richardson for fighting to put physical education back into elementary schools and taking junk foods out, increasing teacher pay and restoring collective bargaining rights for educators.
"Governor Richardson has made great efforts to improve school funding, increase school employee salaries, and make sure that the needs of the whole child are considered in making education policy decisions,” said Sharon Morgan, president of NEA-New Mexico. “He has been a champion of both educators and students.
Richardson is just the second recipient of the award. He will return to Cape Cod to continue his vacation before returning to New Mexico by July 13th.
Photos Courtesy: NEA