Noting that she is pleased with the progress New Mexico schools have made over time, Gov. Susana Martinez also conceded setbacks underlined by a 2014 graduation rate that dipped slightly below that of 2013.
The 2014 graduation rate was 68.5 percent, compared with 70 percent in 2013, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department.
In the Albuquerque Public Schools, the rate fell 6.2 percentage points – from 68.7 percent in 2013 to 62.5 percent in 2014.
“We can’t be satisfied with where we are,” Martinez said Friday during a news conference in the Highland High School library. “Our graduation rates are 5.5 percent better than four years ago. Fifty-four percent of our school districts showed an increase in graduation rates this year.”
But she said the drop in the 2014 graduation rate shows that much more needs to be done.
Martinez outlined several proposals aimed at bolstering reading programs in the early grades, lowering dropout rates and attacking student truancy, in part by suspending the driver’s licences of habitually truant students.
“One day you are going to be replacing us,” Martinez said, addressing the handful of Highland High students attending the news conference. “You have to be better than us.”
Joining the governor at the news conference were Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera, Albuquerque Public Schools interim Superintendent Brad Winter and APS School Board President Analee Maestas.
The governor said her administration is putting more money than ever into pre-kindergarten to third-grade education.
“Once you hit the fourth grade, the subject matter gets harder, the words get bigger, the chapters get longer,” she said.
The governor said it’s about this time that kids begin to fall behind, get embarrassed when they are asked to read in front of the class and can’t, and then they begin to skip school.
Sixteen percent of New Mexico students – 48,000 kids – were habitually truant, meaning they missed at least 10 days of school, in the 2013-14 school year. Twenty-four percent of seniors were habitually truant.
“You can’t learn anything if you’re not in school,” Martinez said.
The governor’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposes about $3 million to continue programs under the New Mexico Graduates Now! Initiative, which includes early-college high school, placing college counselors in high schools and creating an early dropout warning system.
A total of $12.5 million is earmarked for districts, schools and students in need of additional support and intervention, such as placing dropout prevention coaches in schools.
“We are putting money where it matters in schools,” Martinez said.
The governor also pointed to House Bill 117 and Senate Bill 85, which clear the way for school districts to work with the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend the driver’s licences and learner permits of habitually truant students.
Similar legislation died in committee during the last legislative session, but Martinez said the new bills have been streamlined, cutting out some red tape and providing for plenty of advance warning for students.
“Urge our legislators in both the House and the Senate to do the right thing and send these bills to my desk,” she said.
“We have to embrace the idea that change is hard, but if we do better it is worth it.”
In a related matter, the House Education Committee on Friday passed House Bill 76, which would allow New Mexico’s best teachers to advance faster and earn a higher salary sooner.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, was approved on a 7-6 vote.
It would open the way for top teachers to earn $50,000 in just four years instead of having to wait six years as is now required.