New Mexico’s poverty and low literacy rate are inextricably linked, a recent two-day series by the Journal showed (read it online at ABQJournal.com). So it’s little coincidence a WalletHub report Monday ranked the public education system in New Mexico, which has the third-highest poverty rate in the country, 51st in the nation including District of Columbia.
To try and improve educational outcomes, the N.M. Legislature has made serious and consistent efforts at increasing K-12 funding. That spending, to educate around 318,000 students, now amounts to just under $4 billion a year — almost half the state budget. Just this year state lawmakers approved a 7% salary increase for teachers and all public education staff.
Lawmakers have also created and expanded extended learning time programs — one of the established methods of improving academic proficiencies. The 2018 landmark Yazzie/Martinez education ruling, which found the state has fallen short of its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education for all students, specifically recommended extended learning time and tutoring.
And yet here we are.
WalletHub measured education quality and safety, including pupil-teacher ratios, dropout rates and standardized-test scores. New Mexico ranked 50th in math test scores, topping Alabama, and 50th in reading, above Alaska. We were tied at 49th with Arizona and D.C., with the worst dropout rates. The 2021 Kids Count Data Book for New Mexico showed 76% of fourth graders and 79% of eighth graders are not proficient in reading.
Meanwhile, extended learning has been optional and has run into intransigence on the part of parents and many teachers. Few schools participate in programs like K-5 Plus, which can add up to 25 days to school calendars. Only about 3% of eligible students will participate in K-5 Plus in the coming school year, and less than 41% of kindergarten through 12th graders will participate in extended learning time programs.
“We’re all so concerned about the lack of participation across the state in what we have been told is the way to move the bar,” says state Rep. Candie Sweetser, D-Deming.
In fact, more than $130 million of the $159 million the state has appropriated for extended learning time programs and the $120 million appropriated for K-5 Plus for 2023 is expected to be sent back to the public education reform fund.
“That’s not acceptable,” Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus recently told lawmakers.
The board of Albuquerque Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 71,000 students, in April rejected a proposal to implement extended learning time programs districtwide. Only 29 of APS’ 88 elementary schools will have extended academic calendars in the coming school year.
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, has a good suggestion: Instead of continuing to beg districts to participate in programs like K-5 Plus, and “making the districts jump through the hoops of how to get it right, let’s just talk about extending the school year, how it could work with individual districts, and allowing that local flexibility.”
More school days would allow more time for learning absorption and support students’ quest for literacy — ultimately helping working families break the cycle of poverty.
But parents need to get on board. Change is hard. And many don’t like the idea of shortening the summer vacation.
Teachers also cite reasons against a longer year — they already are burned out by year’s end and valuable education courses they take may overlap with a longer school year.
Still, the status quo is not working. And studies show that extended learning with the same teacher can move the needle. Optional programs have not had enough takers to move N.M. schools and families out of poverty and illiteracy. Stewart is right; it is time to seriously consider extending the school year.
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.