Big changes could come to the NM schools

Teacher Therese Garcia works with her students during an activity at the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy in July. (Chancey Bush / Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Some big changes to New Mexico schools may be on the table for next year.

Legislative Committee staffers presented several early proposals to lawmakers Monday afternoon — some more developed than others — to gather feedback and generate interest ahead of the next legislative session.

“These would be your bills, and so we want to know where you stand on each of the proposals,” said Legislative Education Study Committee associate director John Sena.

Key points included proposals to increase the number of hours taught in all schools to 1,140 – essentially increasing the number of six-hour days by 10 for seniors – and a more elaborate plan to revise graduation requirements in New Mexico.

The latter could mean eliminating courses like Algebra II and reducing the total number of compulsory units by two to 22. Broken down, this would mean: four each of English, mathematics, social sciences and compulsory electives; three science units; two “local discretionary” units designated by school districts; and a combined sports and health course.

The recommendation to stick with three science units comes after school principals raised concerns – fueled by nationwide staffing shortages – over a proposal to increase the number of science units put forward earlier this year, Senior Policy Analyst Jessica Hathaway said.

She noted that overall there is “very strong interest” in updating degree requirements across the state, and specifically in making vocational technical education more accessible.

“There is a great deal of interest in ensuring that (it) is an engaging high school experience for our students, that we meet current and future workforce needs…while maintaining strict and strong expectations of our students,” Hathaway said.

There were several areas in the plan that lawmakers said needed more discussion, including the number of elective units, given that 7½ units are currently required. However, some expressed early, tentative support.

“I like the idea of ​​what I would call individualizing education for high school students and giving them more control over their destiny, so to speak,” said Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec.

Increasing tuition hours to 1,140 in all schools could mean more drastic changes.

Across the state of New Mexico, school districts average about 1,076 hours in a school year, Sena said. By law, grades one through six, which typically attend school less time per day, require 990 hours per year and grades seven and above 1,080. The proposal to increase instructional hours would involve committing over $200 million and ending extended study time and K-5 Plus programs, which add 10 and up to 25 days to the school calendar, respectively.

Both programs were cited in a 2018 ruling in Yazzie-Martinez’s consolidated lawsuit as services that would help “at-risk” students bridge achievement gaps.

However, both programs have also seen a decline in enrollments and $400 million in government funds that went unspent in recent years.

Sena noted that some districts would experience a collective shortfall of approximately $25 million from the loss of program-specific funds. But the proposal would take that into account, he said, possibly setting aside a pot of money to cover the amount districts would lose.

Sena noted that the general consensus was that having more time at school for students was a good thing, and that increasing class hours would provide the flexibility that districts have complained about the extended study period and the K-5 Plus programs.

Rep. G. Andrés Romero, an Albuquerque Democrat and high school teacher, said more clarity was needed about what those days would actually look like for educators and students, but noted that he was interested in contributing to the proposal work.

“If we can really make a more concerted effort to define the day, but make those days impactful and most impactful for everyone in the school environment, our schools will definitely be better off,” he said.

Other proposals discussed Monday included removing current and future offsets for school districts’ inpatient projects, which have been a significant obstacle for many in recent years; Established US$50 million Indian Education Endowment Fund; and raising minimum salaries for educational assistants from $12,000 to $25,000.

Legislators took the opportunity to support these proposals, particularly the Indian Education Endowment Fund.