ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – In front of the Legislative Education Study Committee on Tuesday, Public Education Department Secretary Kurt Steinhaus updated lawmakers on where the state’s education system stands.

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“It’s time for us to admit that that’s our starting point, and we have a long way to go. And I’m not shy about it, I’m not afraid about it, and I am optimistic that we can get that improvement to go like a hockey stick, a little bit steeper, steeper, steeper, and steeper,” said Steinhaus.

Data shows graduation rates across the state are improving, though there is still a gap among lower-income students. There is also a learning gap from the impact of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another big challenge the education system is facing is staffing up schools.

The state has 690 teacher vacancies, which is down from 1,048 last year. The biggest needs are in elementary and special education. “690 classrooms without a licensed teacher, and that’s not ok,” said Steinhaus. “You’ll see in our package presenting to you, specific and concentrated initiatives to address and to keep the momentum going.”

And that includes investing a large part of their budget. Steinhaus proposes using $109.3 million to give all staff 4% pay increases. “That will help us address the educator workforce crisis, help us fill teacher vacancies and help us respect our educators as the professionals that they are.,” said Steinhaus.

Steinhaus is also proposing about $56 million to address ‘hard-to-fill’ positions like bus drivers and school counselors. The state currently has one counselor for every 416 students. PED also wants to invest tens of millions for special education early literacy coaching and special education training and for districts to recruit and retain employees.

“We have one goal for you, and that’s it. It’s to move the needle for student achievement,” said Steinhaus. “So, that’s our number one goal, and this entire budget is built around moving forward and addressing that goal.”

The PED’s current FY 2023 budget is $3.8 billion, which is about 45% of the state’s budget.