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Editorial: Reading, teacher pay need to be on the table

While our public schools are tasked with many duties circa 2013, there should be no debate that their most basic responsibility remains teaching children to read.

Yet for $2.4 billion a year — 43 percent of the state budget — New Mexico’s public schools are not. In fact, less than half — 47.4 percent — of the state’s third-graders could read at grade level last school year, though teaching children to read is required by state law.

This week the House Education Committee decided taxpayers would need to fork over even more cash for the state’s public schools to accomplish this most basic of responsibilities; $2.4 billion just isn’t enough. Using that rationale, the Democrats on the committee voted to table — essentially kill — House Bill 257, sponsored by Democrat and former Las Cruces educator Rep. Mary Helen Garcia.

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Chairwoman Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, called the bill’s intense reading interventions in kindergarten through third grade, with students who still can’t read at third-grade level held back as a last resort, an “unfunded mandate.”

That raises the question what $2.4 billion does fund, exactly.

A similar fate befell SB 316, sponsored by Albuquerque Republican Sen. Sander Rue, which would link teacher evaluations to student achievement. Democrats on the Senate Education Committee tabled that bill Wednesday.

Teachers currently are paid based on a three-tiered licensing system focused on degrees and seniority. The state has taken $634 million out of the Land Grant Permanent Fund for this remuneration since 2003, although only a portion of the money actually went toward teacher salaries. In 2009 a Legislative Finance committee analysis found the three-tier system had “not resulted in significant gains in student achievement.”

Three things stand out here:

1. New Mexico state law “requires school boards to approve district-developed remediation and academic improvement programs to provide special instructional assistance to students in first through eighth grade who do not demonstrate academic proficiency. Despite this statutory requirement, a large percentage of students fail to achieve proficiency on the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment.” That’s according to the Fiscal Impact Report of the reading bill.

2. New Mexico has expensive experience showing that simply allocating more money does not deliver results. The fiscal impact report also says “it is reasonable to expect that districts should prioritize existing resources into strategies that are scientifically based and have proven success to increase reading achievement. … Given the current economic climate, now is the time to look closely at how districts and charters are spending current revenues, what programs are working and should be prioritized, and what programs have little success and should be terminated.”

3. The current system isn’t working. New Mexicans are paying billions each year to not teach their children to read.

New Mexico’s students — and they should be the focus — would be better served by a system that requires they be taught to read by third grade, and that evaluates and rewards their teachers based on the strides those teachers help students make.

That system is what HB 257 (and its Senate version, SB 260 by Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs) and SB 316 seek to establish. They need to be put back on the table for the good of New Mexico’s taxpayers, economy, employers, parents and — especially — students.

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.

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