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APS, Santa Fe see reading program cuts

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The New Mexico Public Education Department has changed the way it funds a popular reading program, resulting in Albuquerque and Santa Fe school districts receiving no money this year, while a small district near Silver City was allocated more than $500,000.

Christopher Ruszkowski, acting secretary of education, told the Journal last week that PED is offering “Reads to Lead” to districts that have demonstrated strong improvement on standardized tests or a good plan to deliver it.

The $12.5 million state program provides reading specialists to assist kindergarten through third-grade students.

“Gov. (Susana) Martinez, the Public Education Department and the Legislature have all put a real premium on return on investment for taxpayer dollars as it pertains to student achievement in recent years,” Ruszkowski said. “That is the overarching principle that we are applying whether it is Reads to Lead or another program.”

In May, 30 districts and 11 charter schools were automatically funded because they had shown sufficient growth on standardized tests like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Another 19 districts and one charter school received money based on applications that were reviewed by an independent panel of associate superintendents, curriculum experts, principals and teachers.

The Albuquerque and Santa Fe school districts didn’t make the cut.

Cobre Consolidated Schools, just outside Silver City, received by far the largest allocation – $521,149. Alamogordo was second highest at $322,100.

Some district leaders say PED’s approach to Reads to Lead has caused stress and logistical problems.

Since the program began in 2012, PED has changed the application process four times, resulting in wildly varying funding levels for many districts, according to a recent report from the Legislative Education Study Committee.

Albuquerque Public Schools dropped from $1.065 million in Reads to Lead funding two years ago to $565,200 last year to nothing for the current fiscal year.

“We were not funded in any way, shape or form, which means 24 of our schools in Albuquerque are going to lose the support of a reading coach,” said Carrie Robin Brunder, APS director of government affairs and policy. “We value reading coaches. We think reading coaches are really important for our schools, but we are now placed in a position where we don’t have that resource anymore because we didn’t receive funding from the Public Ed Department.”

Brunder said it can be difficult to hire reading coaches because the positions are tied to the grant funding and have an uncertain future.

Competitive process

Launched by the governor, Reads to Lead began as a competitive grant, but PED changed course from 2014 to 2016, providing money for any district that sent in an application and met minimum requirements.

The competitive process was reinstated in fiscal year 2017 and maintained in the current fiscal year, though the eligibility requirements were changed again. This spring, PED used outside reviewers for the first time.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said she believes PED “picked and chose districts that they like” to demonstrate that Reads to Leads boosts test scores.

Charles Goodmacher, National Education Association of New Mexico spokesman, said politics is deciding who gets funding and who doesn’t.

“It is wrong to punish students in Santa Fe, Albuquerque or elsewhere for whether they play games in accord with ideological preferences of the PED,” he said in a statement.

But Ruszkowski insisted the process was not political in any way.

The external reviewers, recruited from districts across the state, independently evaluated the Reads to Lead applications based on PED’s rubric. PED then determined how much money to allocate to each district.

Leslie Kilmer, an Española deputy superintendent who served as a reviewer, said the process was “fair and well organized.”

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica C. Garcia told the Journal she wished she had heard more feedback on her Reads to Lead application, which just missed the funding cutoff.

Santa Fe has not gotten Reads to Lead money during the past two fiscal years.

Reads to Lead allocations have also fluctuated dramatically at Aztec Municipal Schools. The northern New Mexico district was allocated $130,000 for the 2015-2016 school year but lost all funding the next year, according to the Legislative Education Study Committee. In May, Aztec received $200,365.

“We have had many changes in the Reads to Lead grant application over the past several years and for this reason we have had many districts, ours included, that have had the funding, lost it, and then received it again,” Aztec Municipal Schools leaders wrote in a recent presentation for the LESC.

“It is very difficult to get consistency in both results and professional development to our staff when you have a reading coach one year, and you find your district without the next year.”

A report prepared by LESC staff also questions whether districts that already have high scores should receive Reads to Lead funding, while struggling districts are left out.

Los Alamos, a top performer, was automatically funded for Reads to Lead in May, because it showed strong growth on standardized tests. Since the 2016 fiscal year, it has received a total of $590,000 for the program.

“(Reads to Lead) spending has not clearly resulted in higher student achievement and concerns persist that distributions are inconsistent and have not targeted the lowest performing schools or low-income students, where spending is more likely to make a difference,” the LESC report states.

Ruszkowski said PED offers a number of programs for struggling schools, and he is often asked why they are not available to every district.

‘Return on investment’

The Reads to Lead debate reflects a broader fight over New Mexico’s education funding: money for all vs. “return on investment.”

Brunder said many state programs have seen budget reductions, which makes it difficult for APS to maintain “consistent reform efforts.”

K-3 Plus, a popular initiative that extends the school year by 25 days, was scaled back, and APS was among the hardest hit.

This year, the district received money to offer K-3 Plus to about 3,000 students, down from about 5,000 last year.

Ruszkowski said demand for state programs is rising and PED must allocate the funding responsibly.

In addition, the Legislature has reduced funding for Reads to Lead and other state education programs to help balance the budget.

Reads to Lead was a $15 million program during the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. Now it is down to $12.5 million.

“To make the argument that we should invest in places where achievement is going downward doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Some districts, like APS, have received funding for various state efforts for years but not shown strong results, Ruszkowski said.

APS schools participating in Reads to Lead saw third-grade reading scores fall by 1.6 percentage points between the 2016 and 2017 school years, while all other Reads to Leads districts and charters improved third-grade reading by 3.2 percentage points over the same period.

According to the latest PARCC test results, APS reading scores have dropped 2 percentage points overall since 2015. Of the 10 largest districts in the state, only APS and Rio Rancho Public Schools’ scores declined.

“You have this pattern of seeing APS receive additional funding and opportunity, but those dollars are not yielding return on investment,” Ruszkowski said.

He believes there are “systemic problems” in APS that can be traced to board members’ attitudes, particularly a long-standing resistance to “data-driven” instruction.

“School improvement in New Mexico is a choice,” he said. “We have to be solutions focused. … It starts with a belief that we hold ourselves accountable for student outcomes.”

Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, said she believes APS should see test score growth if it is implementing programs like Reads to Lead correctly.

“I would say lack of funding should not be an excuse for not having kids read, especially when you are the biggest district in the state,” she said. “The APS budget is two times the city of Albuquerque. Why we are still seeing declines in reading?”

Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and retired educator, argued that it is unfair to compare a large urban district like APS to small communities.

“APS needs more resources because of their size,” she said. “I think you should send resources to districts proportionate on the needs of your students.”

The state senator called for PED to distribute Reads to Lead money to all districts through the state’s per-pupil funding formula, which provides more for low-income and special education children.

“Our students should not be thought of as return on investments – that’s my personal opinion,” she said.