Monday, June 5, 2023
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All She Wrote

Commentary: Lawmakers Relieve Educational Assistants But Not College Adjunct Faculty

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In a year with lots of money to spend, legislators tried to lift up two long-neglected groups of educators – educational assistants in schools and higher education’s adjunct faculty members.


Only educational assistants got any love. Their bill sparked a sense of urgency and flew through hearings and floor sessions with nary a hiccup, while three measures directed at adjunct faculty died.


The situation of educational assistants is easier to understand. They’re not aides or helpers. Schools need them, rely on them, but don’t pay them a living wage.


New Mexico has 5,467 educational assistants in public schools. They usually work the same hours as teachers, but because their pay is so low some work second jobs or need Medicaid and food stamps. As the ones who often interact with students who have disabilities or behavioral disorders, they’re bitten, punched and kicked in the line of duty.


By law, their minimum pay is $12,000 ($6 an hour), although the average is about $22,000, according to the Legislative Educational Study Committee. However, 28% earn less than $20,000. That’s probably why we have a 33% vacancy rate for these folks.


The bipartisan House Bill 127, a priority of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico (AFT), passed unanimously in both chambers and has funding in the budget. Now the law, it sets a new minimum of $25,000 (roughly $12.50 an hour) beginning in the 2023-2024 school year. It raises the salaries of about 72% of the state’s educational assistants.


That’s still not enough, but it’s a start.


Non-tenured college faculty members didn’t get the same shake.


HB 417 would have established a minimum salary of $52,000 for full-time adjunct faculty.


Adjuncts account for 41% of faculty in the state’s public institutions. They have the same academic credentials as full-time faculty, teach at all levels of their institutions, and are essential to higher education’s mission, and yet the institutions “systematically disrespect adjunct educators by providing them no pathway to job security and paying them poverty wages,” wrote AFT. “In fact, on average, adjunct faculty at New Mexico’s public two- and four-year institutions earn annualized salaries of $27,300 and $31,300 respectively.”


That’s not much for somebody with a Ph.D.


HB 417 had the support of Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez but died in committee because it had no funding in the budget.


HB 403 would have accelerated loan forgiveness under the federal public-service loan program for adjunct and contingent faculty by changing the way hours are calculated. There would be no financial impact on New Mexico. HB 403 passed the House and the Senate Education Committee but died on the Senate calendar.


HB 151 would have given adjunct and contingent faculty unemployment benefits when their class schedules are abruptly cancelled. Typically, cancellations are a function of enrollment and budget considerations.


Currently, these instructors are not eligible for unemployment benefits if they have “reasonable assurance” that they will be rehired the following year or term. HB 151 would have taken some of the pain out of a process that can be unpredictable, but it bogged down in trying to define “reasonable assurance” and other exceptions.


In the House it met stalwart Republican resistance but passed the Senate Education Committee unanimously. It died before the Senate Judiciary Committee could hear it.


Adjunct faculty members share the same disadvantages as educational assistants – the lack of respect, the paltry salaries – plus unpredictability. Our higher education institutions take advantage of them and balance their budgets on the adjunct’s back. They too deserve some relief.

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