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Editorial: Dismal graduation rates need legislators’ attention

Students from low-income families graduate from high school at a lower rate than other students. Students who are not proficient in English graduate at a lower rate than those who are. About 58 percent of New Mexico high school seniors qualify as low-income, and about 27 percent of the state’s students are considered “English Language Learners,” the highest percentage in the nation.

So it is of little surprise that in 2015, New Mexico had the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation, 69 percent. The statistics, gleaned from a new report by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, are as disheartening as they are familiar. Studies of American educational systems always have New Mexico at or near the bottom.

But there are some interesting details within those statistics: For example, 67 percent of high school seniors in California are low-income, yet their graduation rate was 78 percent. In West Virginia, 66 percent of its seniors were low-income, but nearly 83 percent of them graduated.

Clearly, those two states are having much more success graduating low-income students than we are.

Meanwhile, the nation’s overall graduation rate hit a record-breaking 83 percent in 2015.

Here in our backyard, Albuquerque Public Schools was second from the bottom on the list of graduation rates for the 100 largest school districts – 62 percent. Only the Milwaukee School District was worse, at 58 percent.

New Mexico Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera didn’t question the report, titled “Building a Grad Nation,” but offers a hopeful note: In 2016, the statewide graduation rate was up to 71 percent, and showed progress among Hispanic, African-American, low-income and disabled students. Similarly, APS’ graduation rate rose to 66 percent last year.

While the trend is slightly upward in New Mexico, it’s true nationwide as well, which means that closing the gap and moving off the bottom of the statistics will take even greater effort.

As legislators and Gov. Susana Martinez work to craft a new state budget – and it will clearly take a gargantuan effort on both their parts – they’d do well to remember our continually disappointing graduation rates.

Because you can’t build an economy without an educated workforce, and you can’t build a tax base without taxpayers. But simply throwing more money at the problem will never be the solution; targeting investments on data-driven solutions is.

Maybe California and West Virginia can offer some suggestions.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.