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More school days among options as New Mexico weighs reforms

September 28, 2018
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New Mexico Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, questions a panel of lawyers about the state's funding formula for public schools during a committee hearing in Albuquerque, N.M., on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. New Mexico lawmakers are considering education reforms in the wake of a court ruling that mandated the state provide greater resources for schools to guarantee an adequate education for at-risk students, specifically those from low-income families, Native American communities and households where English is not the primary language. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The standard school year could be stretched by 10 days or more, with a much longer expansion of summertime instruction at elementary schools catering to low-income families, as part of numerous reforms considered by New Mexico lawmakers Friday at two simultaneous meetings.

Proposals to reinvent the public education system are taking shape as the state judiciary threatens with intervening to improve New Mexico’s struggling schools — potentially by injunction if the Legislature and executive branch do not act.

In a landmark decision, a district judge earlier this year ordered the state to provide greater resources for schools to guarantee an adequate education for at-risk students, specifically those from low-income families, Native American communities and households where English is not the primary language. The ruling was the outcome of a trial with six weeks of testimony from experts and official from across the state’s public education sector.

The ruling is being appealed by the administration of outgoing Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, but the two candidates vying to replace her are showing little or no enthusiasm for disputing the judge’s guidance.

Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, a member of the Legislative Education Study Committee that met Friday in Albuquerque, said New Mexico knows its challenges and that priorities must be set if it wants to move ahead.

“This ruling says ‘You can’t make excuses, Legislature, anymore.’ You can’t say ‘Oh, we have a lot of things to fund.’ This case is saying a right to a free and fair public education is a constitutionally protected right,” she said.

In southern New Mexico, lawmakers discussed a report from staff at the Legislature’s lead budget writing committee that puts a price tag on efforts to extend instructional time. Specifically, long summer gaps in classroom learning would be shortened, especially for young students from low-income families that can’t afford engaging alternatives.

One proposal from the Legislative Finance Committee aspires to vastly expand the state’s “K-3 plus” program to provide 25 additional annual days of schooling. The expansion aims to include nearly 100,000 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. A student participating in the program over a six-year period would gain nearly a full academic year of instruction.

Socorro Consolidated Schools Superintendent Ron Hendrix said many students who need it the most have not participated in the current voluntary extended-year programs. He’s not sure the new proposal would resolve that issue.

“I can’t force them” to attend, he said, citing prior experience at another district.

To encourage participation and commitments from teachers, lawmakers might award credit toward reaching the next licensed salary bracket.

A separate proposal to extend the school year to 190 days at schools for all ages and populations would coast as much as $143 million — including a major expansion of after-school programs.

The average school year statewide lasts about 176 days.

Last year, lawmakers approved budget restrictions to halt a trend toward four-day weeks with more hours each day — implemented primarily by smaller, rural school districts in search of cost savings or as a strategy for attracting new teachers. Thirty-eight school districts and 22 charter schools have adopted the practice.

New Mexico trails most of the country in measures of average student academic performances. Among fourth graders, about three-fourths of students cannot read at grade level. The state’s graduation rate has inched upward to 71 percent — still the lowest of any state. For those who move on to college, remedial study is common.

In several states, courts are being called upon to shore up funding for public schools, amid frustration with elected officials over the quality of education, state budget priorities and how much teachers are paid.

The New Mexico education ruling coincides with a surge in state government income linked to an oil sector boom. Economists are estimating a $1.2 billion increase in state revenues for the next fiscal year. Out of $6.3 billion in annual state general fund spending, $2.8 billion goes toward public education.

The lawmakers meeting in Albuquerque listened Friday to a comprehensive platform of reforms, running the gamut from expansion of free public preschool to development of curricula tailored to New Mexico’s Hispanic and Native American communities.

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