Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal
Big education bills and funding are on the table for the upcoming legislative session.
Along with a proposed $4.3 billion support package from the state Public Education Department, lawmakers are mulling several pieces of legislation for the session, including revamping graduation requirements and increasing the amount of time students spend in school.
Those proposals, lawmakers and education officials have said, aim to improve student outcomes and close gaps for “at-risk” students, tackle statewide educator vacancies and better support schools and their leaders.
Put together, Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said at a recent Legislative Finance Committee meeting, those objectives help make up one single goal.
“That’s moving the needle for student achievement,” he said, while also noting that those specific goals are “going to take many years” to achieve.
One of the top proposals in the PED’s support package is to increase the required number of instructional hours in a school year to 1,140. Currently, secondary school students go to school for 1,080 hours per year, and first through sixth graders, who typically spend less time in school per day, go for 990.
The proposal comes after New Mexico has increasingly opted out of extended learning time and K-5 Plus programs, which add 10 days and up to 25 days to school calendars, respectively, and are often geared toward closing gaps in “at-risk” students. Districts have forgone hundreds of millions of dollars for the programs, leaving lawmakers scratching their heads over how to keep students in classrooms longer.
“A big question for the Legislature this session is: What to do about extended learning time and K-5 Plus?” LFC analyst Sunny Liu said. “It’s been a (key) initiative for the Legislature to try and improve student achievement … so there is an urgency to get this right.”
Access to extended learning time was referred to in a 2018 ruling in the consolidated Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit as something that would help close achievement gaps between New Mexico’s English-language learners, economically disadvantaged students, Indigenous students and those with disabilities.
In its proposal, the PED asked for over $261 million to increase the base instructional hours for the academic year that starts this fall.
The department also requested $50 million for “enhanced extended learning opportunities,” or optional time spent after school to help close achievement gaps. Another $33 million would go toward similar optional programs specifically geared toward special education and gifted students.
Legislators and education officials have also been considering some changes to the school’s graduation requirements – to include cutting the number of required units by two as well as the requirement to take Algebra II.
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.
Many of the changes would be aimed at providing more options to high schoolers, especially with courses that have a career-technical education focus. So far, officials say, that plan has gotten broad support.
Lawmakers are also looking at increasing the base salaries of more than 6,500 educational assistants statewide from $12,000 to $25,000.
For all school employees, the PED asked for over $109 million for 4% raises, and over $3 million to increase the minimum salaries of school principals by $3,500 – all pay bumps that Steinhaus has argued would help address the state’s “educator workforce crisis.”
Future offsets – money owed to the state for brick-and-mortar projects from past appropriations – may also be done away with under another bill lawmakers are considering, which may also forgive existing ones for many school districts. Such offsets have provided a barrier for some districts in making school security improvements.
To that end, the PED would also set aside $10 million for school safety infrastructure.
Other asks from the PED, as well as possible bills from legislators, include:
• Over $56 million to hire and train “hard-to-fill” positions, including school counselors. According to an October vacancy report from New Mexico State University, there were 32 school counselor vacancies across the state.
• About $17 million to curb dropout rates and improve statewide attendance in schools, with Liu pointing out that New Mexico graduation rates lag behind national ones and that chronic absenteeism rates have doubled in the last few years.
• Potentially establishing a $50 million tribal education trust fund.