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Some big changes to New Mexico schools may be on the table for next year.
Legislative committee staff presented several early proposals — some more developed than others — to lawmakers Monday afternoon in an effort to gather feedback and garner interest ahead of the next legislative session.
“These would be your bills, and so we want to know how you feel about each of the proposals,” Legislative Education Study Committee Deputy Director John Sena said.
Among the big-ticket items were proposals to increase instructional hours in all schools to 1,140 — essentially increasing the number of six-hour days by 10 for upper-grade students — and a more refined plan to revamp New Mexico’s graduation requirements.
The latter might include cutting such courses as Algebra II and reducing the total number of required units by two to 22. Broken down, that would mean: four English, math, social science and elective units each; three science units; two “local discretionary” units set by school districts; and one combined physical education and health course.
The recommendation to stick to three science units comes after school leaders expressed concern — fueled by statewide staffing shortages — over a suggestion to increase the number of science units that was presented earlier this year, Senior Policy Analyst Jessica Hathaway said.
She noted that, overall, there’s “very strong interest” in updating graduation requirements across the state, and especially with making a career-technical education more accessible.
“There’s a lot of interest in making sure that (it’s) an engaging high school experience for our students, that we’re meeting current and future workforce needs … all while ensuring rigor and strong expectations for our students,” Hathaway said.
There were several areas in the plan that lawmakers said needed more discussion, including the number of elective units, since 7½ units are currently required. Still, some expressed early, tentative support.
“I really like the idea of what I would characterize as individualizing education for high school students, giving them more control over their destiny, so to speak,” Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, said.
Increasing the instructional hours to 1,140 in all schools might mean more drastic changes.
Across the state, New Mexico school districts average about 1,076 hours in a school year, Sena said. By statute, grades one through six, which typically go to school for less time per day, require 990 hours per year, and seventh grade and above require 1,080. The proposal to increase instructional hours, he said, would involve setting aside over $200 million, and sunsetting the extended learning time and K-5 Plus programs, which add 10 days and up to 25 days to school calendars, respectively.
Both programs were referred to in a 2018 ruling in the Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit as services that would help “at-risk” students close achievement gaps.
That said, both programs have also seen a decline in enrollment and $400 million in state funds unspent in recent years.
Sena noted that some districts would experience a collective shortfall of about $25 million from the loss of program-specific funding. But the proposal would account for that, he said, by potentially setting aside a pot of money to cover the amount that districts would lose.
Sena pointed out that the consensus has generally been that it’s a good thing to have more time in school for students, and that upping instructional hours would provide the flexibility districts have complained was lacking in the extended learning time and K-5 Plus programs.
Rep. G. Andrés Romero, an Albuquerque Democrat and high school teacher, said more clarity is needed about what those days would actually look like for educators and students, but noted he was interested in working on the proposal.
“If we can really make more of a concerted effort in defining the day, but making those days impactful, and most impactful for all those in the school environment, the better off our schools will definitely be,” he said.
Other proposals discussed Monday included eliminating current and future offsets for school districts’ brick-and-mortar projects, which has been a significant obstacle for many in recent years; establishing a $50 million Indian Education Endowment Fund; and increasing the salary minimums for educational assistants from $12,000 to $25,000.
Lawmakers jumped at the chance to support those proposals, particularly the Indian Education Endowment Fund.