Gov. Lujan Grisham signs bills on special education, school equity and child support

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This article was published on the Las Cruces Sun-News by Algernon D’Ammassa on April 5, 2021.

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took action Monday on 50 bills passed by the New Mexico Legislature during its regular 60-day session from January to March, highlighting measures addressing special education, childhood poverty and child support as well as social discrimination in schools on the basis of a student’s hair or cultural headdress.

The governor signed 50 bills into law Monday on top of at least 22 previously, plus the bill financing last week’s two-day special session; and she has vetoed one.

Any bills from the regular session not signed by April 9 are effectively vetoed, and she has until April 20 to sign bills passed during the special session, including a measure legalizing and regulating cannabis for adult use in New Mexico. 

Lujan Grisham signed the Family Income Index Act, a measure from Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, which directs the state Public Education Department to calculate household income for public school students based on data from the Taxation and Revenue and Human Services departments or U.S. Census data. 

That data would be used to identify schools with the highest populations of low-income students and target resources to those in greatest need. Eligible schools will share a $15 million appropriation to fund reading and math instruction, afterschool programs, school counselors, social workers, family resource centers and other assistance. 

Stewart’s bill followed a recommendation from PED Secretary Ryan Stewart (no relation) in December. 

“Getting additional funding directly to schools serving low-income populations will help boost reading, math, and other important educational programs, and I look forward to seeing the results of this pilot program,” Mimi Stewart said in a news release.

Special education ombud

Lujan Grisham also signed HB 222, enacting a special education “ombud,” a gender-neutral alternative to “ombudsman.” Working from within Developmental Disabilities Council, a body appointed by the governor and funded with state and federal dollars, the ombud is to serve as an advocate for children receiving special education services. 

The bill won unanimous support in both chambers. It was was sponsored by four Democratic House and Senate members, one of whom — state Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City — is an elementary school educator and school psychologist who recently served as special education director for a local charter school. 

The lead sponsor was state Rep. Liz Thomson of Albuquerque, along with Rep. Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces, state Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque and Correa Hemphill.

“The ombudsman created by this legislation will serve as a vital resource and advocate for parents with special needs students, advising them about their rights, providing expertise on special education laws, and helping them navigate the complex system,”  Ferrary wrote in a statement. 

Child support changes

Third, the governor enacted SB 140, sponsored by Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, updating child support statutes to align with federal law and reducing time frames for assessing fees, costs and expenses as well as child support arrears in most cases from 12 years to three.

According to the legislative fiscal impact report, the adjustment — modeled on best practices in other states — will collected an estimated additional $30.9 million on behalf of children, or $284 per child per year. 

The practice follows studies that have indicated high child support debts are detrimental to family relationships. In a news release, Lujan Grisham said, “Working parents who don’t live with their kids will be able to build stronger relationships with them when they feel good about being able to financially support them.” 

The legislation — mirrored in the House with a duplicate bill from Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales — was a must-pass to preserve $147.5 million in federal funding for low-income families and child support programs.

No discrimination based on hairstyle

The governor also signed bipartisan legislation banning discrimination or disciplining of public school children on the basis of hairstyle or headdress.

“Forcing students to conform their natural hairstyles or remove cultural headdresses to simply get an education or participate in school events is unconscionable, yet it has a long history in New Mexico,” Rep. Patricia Royal Caballero, D-Albuquerque and a cosponsor of the legislation, wrote in a statement.

The bill aligns with the national CROWN Act project, which advocates for civil rights legislation in all 50 states to protect workers and students from discriminatory behavior over “race-based hairstyles … such as braids, locs, twists, and knots.” The acronym stands for “Creation a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair.” 

Amy Whitfield, director of the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs, said the new law “provides a historic impact to Black women in New Mexico, through breaking down barriers present in educational and professional settings.”

School funding

The governor also signed off on state equalization guarantee distributions, which provide the state’s schools with most of their funding, and highlighted a provision that eliminates a tax credit for areas including federal and tribal lands, appropriates $67 million in recurring funds to offset the cost and correct a longstanding problem in distributing equitable education funding.

Advocates had maintained for years that the tax credit was shortchanging students in districts with large Native American populations and contradicting the intent of federal law.

Lujan Grisham said the change “will ensure that every penny provided to offset the cost of federal installations and tribal lands goes to the districts affected.”

State Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo called it “a turning point for Indian education in New Mexico.”