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Senate panel approves sweeping education bill

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A hefty education bill won unanimous approval Friday in the Senate Education Committee, after a charter student enrollment cap was stripped out of the bill.

Originally, Senate Bill 1 would have limited the state’s charter school student population to no more than 27,000 for the 2019-20 school year. That would mean fewer than a thousand students statewide would have been allowed to newly enroll.

But after clamorous pushback from charter leaders and closed-door discussions among senators, the enrollment cap was amended out of the bill Friday.

It was the first thing discussed at the committee meeting.

“The … amendment essentially takes off the charter school cap of 27,000 students,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee.

Stewart had originally argued for the enrollment limit, saying charters have received 55 percent of new money put into education during the past nine years.

Matt Pahl, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, told the Journal that the change to the bill improved it but said other components left in the bill would hurt charters.

“Today’s changes were a very positive step forward in creating legislation that helps all students,” Pahl said. “But … there are still provisions that would devastate charter schools, particularly those serving at-risk populations.”

For instance, he said, Senate Bill 1 would also limit a funding component that gives extra dollars to smaller schools, which he said would affect charters.

And the bill would curb funding for adult students who are older than 22 at the start of the school year. Pahl said this also could affect charters, because some schools work with older students to finish high school.

Opponents have said this would affect adult learners who don’t want a GED diploma and want a high school diploma instead.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, who is on the committee, said he will introduce a bill to allow the state Public Education Department to issue alternative diplomas to such students.

Another amendment to the bill – which would replace K-3-plus initiatives with K-5-plus programs – included taking out mandatory language for K-5-plus.

The K-5 plus programs would include 25 additional instructional days before the school year starts, would keep kids with the same teacher for the extended time and during the school year and set aside professional development time for K-5 plus teachers.

“What we wanted to do in three years, is if (schools) qualify you must do the program, so, that raised questions and we might not be ready for that,” Stewart said about the changes.

She said it can be legislatively reassessed down the line if mandatory language needs to be added.

In its current form, Senate Bill 1 raises teacher salary tiers, increases the amount of money for at-risk student resources and creates funding sources for extended learning time programs that would add extra instructional days, professional development days and after-school programs to the school year.

The bill, which has an estimated impact of between $289.9 million and $423.5 million for the budget year that starts in July, now goes to the Senate Finance Committee.

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