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Editorial: NM needs to stick with K-5 Plus and Extended Learning

Although implementation challenges, including a global pandemic, have stymied participation in two programs intended to narrow educational gaps, state lawmakers and the Public Education Department mustn’t give up on the state’s K-5 Plus and Extended Learning Time programs.

Because unlike simply raiding the Land Grant Permanent Fund to throw money at a problem, the data shows that these programs, which do require logistical effort, deliver real results for our students.

Unfortunately, a Legislative Education Study Committee brief says participation in the two programs has been dramatically lower than anticipated.

State lawmakers earmarked $120 million for K-5 Plus for the summer of 2019, which extended the school year by 25 days for 87,000 elementary students. But only $22 million was distributed. The program was scuttled in the summer of 2020. Lawmakers appropriated $62.5 million for Extended Learning Time programs for 124,000 students in the 2019-20 school year, but only $42.2 million for 83,000 students was spent.

A legislative analyst questions whether the programs are the most effective way to increase time spent on learning, citing implementation challenges.

But lawmakers, including career educator Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, will tell you the programs are stringent for good reasons that include continuity. The K-5 Plus program requires students be kept with the same teacher for the summer program and the school year. The Extended Learning Time program adds 10 instructional days per school year while also requiring after-school programs.

New Mexicans clearly want to see improvements in public education. A poll in 2018 by the Journal found 68% of those polled consider the quality of public school education a “very serious” problem and another 24% defined it as “somewhat serious.”

Stewart told the Journal Editorial Board recently she would like to see the current school year extended 10 days for every student. The LESC brief also suggests an expanded school year or making the programs mandatory.

Unused money for K-5 Plus and Extended Learning Time reverts to the public education reform fund, where its ultimate use is nebulous. The LFC brief says if school districts and charter schools are unable to implement the programs quickly, the Legislature “might consider rethinking” them.

They might give them a fighting chance first.

N.M. Public Education Deputy Secretary Katarina Sandoval says the 2020-21 school year should see a significant increase in participation – to 135,479. And while the LESC brief says that’s down from earlier projections, we had a little thing called COVID-19 that shuttered schools and businesses, threw parents out of work, and more. Expecting these programs to be on pace is patently unfair and unrealistic.

Giving up on K-5 Plus and Extended Learning Time so soon – especially given the challenges the coronavirus pandemic presented – is not the answer. The unused money should be re-invested in the programs, and the Public Education Department should work with districts to not only roll them out, but to fill empty seats and expand availability.

The landmark 2018 Yazzie-Martinez court ruling determined the state is not providing adequate education for all. These programs, which have proven track records, should be part of the solution.

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.