A bill overhauling graduation requirements is advancing in the Roundhouse — though not everyone’s happy with it yet.
Among other changes, the bill would reduce the requirements to graduate, a measure that sponsor Rep. Ryan Lane, an Aztec Republican, told the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee on Monday will help drive New Mexico forward, especially for students who fall behind.
“With our 24-credit system, it’s hard to feel like you’re ever going to catch up. And so I think this will … help kids actually stay more dedicated in school,” he said.
Oftentimes, it’s students who are most “at risk” who are behind. In 2021, which is the most recent data available on the state Public Education Department website, Indigenous and African American students, economically disadvantaged students, English learners and those with disabilities had the lowest graduation rates, with the latter coming in last at 68%.
Those groups, except for African American students, were identified in the consolidated Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, which in 2018 yielded a decision from a judge finding that New Mexico had violated the rights of those students by failing to provide a sufficient education for them.
The graduation requirements bill, which passed the committee on a 8-2 vote, would reduce the total number of units required to graduate by two to 22. Four units would be required in math, English, social sciences and electives, and three would be required in science, two of which need to be lab credits. Algebra II would no longer be required.
Two more credits would be decided by local districts and charter schools, based on their graduation priorities. Rounding out the 22 credits would be a half-credit each in health and physical education.
The bill’s next stop will be the House Education Committee. But before it’s passed into law, there may still be a few points some might want to iron out.
Lawmakers and audience members argued that financial literacy, as its own course, should also be required of high school graduates, with at least one legislator voicing concerns the bill would remove financial literacy entirely, even as an elective that must be offered.
Among them was a recent high school graduate, Jaden Chavez, who spoke from experience in saying he would have liked to have been taught financial literacy in high school.
“I passed the (Advanced Placement) test for macroeconomics, and I still feel as if my financial literacy is not up to where it should be,” Chavez said. “We need some sort of financial literacy class. That’s probably one of the biggest areas that I wish I would have had from high school that I did not.”
Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque and coincidentally a lawmaker Chavez was shadowing, proposed an amendment to the bill that would have added financial literacy in the math or social sciences categories.
She cited feedback Albuquerque Public Schools received from its communities last year, where better preparation for success after high school — which many people attributed to being able to craft a budget and other financial literacy-related skills — was a top priority that was identified for the district by families and staff.
Rep. G. Andrés Romero, an Albuquerque Democrat who’s also sponsoring the bill and who teaches at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School, argued that economics — which is still required under the bill — more or less accomplishes what financial literacy does, even providing a more holistic and wide-ranging education.
Superintendents and representatives from a few school districts expressed concerns about local control, arguing the financial literacy amendment would strip them and their students of flexibility to determine their graduation path — or even force students into paths they don’t want to take.
“If (students) have to eat up some of their requirements to take a financial literacy course as part of their mathematics requirements, that could mean missing out on AP courses — trigonometry, calculus, things of that sort,” Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kevin Summers said.
Matthews’ amendment was ultimately voted down. Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo was among those to vote against it, but pointed out that discussions about explicitly including financial literacy may be better suited for the House Education Committee.
Matthews said she hopes that, in some way — whether it be through a change to the bill or local decisions — school districts are explicitly required to offer financial literacy as an elective.
Some also voiced concerns over the prospect of axing the state’s Algebra II requirement, including Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat, who said that dropping such requirements could have serious implications for Yazzie-Martinez students.
“If we just turn this over, and not require things like Algebra II … I think we’re dumbing down our students,” she said, adding later that “we need to make sure that these kinds of courses are taught, and in the poorest school districts in the state of New Mexico.”
Legislative Education Study Committee Director Gwen Perea Warniment agreed that Algebra II is a useful course for some, but pointed out that the course is only required of up to 14% of New Mexico’s workforce.
The Legislative Finance Committee also said in its analysis of the bill that removing Algebra II could break down a barrier standing in the graduation path of some students, in turn potentially resulting in more students completing high school.
“While you do want to support the student who is on a STEM trajectory and look at Algebra II … you also want to afford the ability for a student to have financial literacy, typical statistics and probability, or even a construction math,” she said. “All of those are really valuable in terms of … broadening the workforce in New Mexico.”