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New Mexico lawmakers OK more school time, fewer mandates

March 18, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Thursday, March 11, 2021, file photo State Sen. Mimi Stewart talks on the Senate floor during the annual legislative session, in Santa Fe, N.M. Education committee leaders in the state Legislature have reached a compromise on extended learning funding that will allow schools to get more money with loosened accountability requirements. The consensus agreement was finalized Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in the House education committee, where Senate sponsor Stewart presented her amended version of the bill. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, March 11, 2021, file photo State Sen. Mimi Stewart talks on the Senate floor during the annual legislative session, in Santa Fe, N.M. Education committee leaders in the state Legislature have reached a compromise on extended learning funding that will allow schools to get more money with loosened accountability requirements. The consensus agreement was finalized Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in the House education committee, where Senate sponsor Stewart presented her amended version of the bill. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, March 11, 2021, file photo State Sen. Mimi Stewart talks on the Senate floor during the annual legislative session, in Santa Fe, N.M. Education committee leaders in the state Legislature have reached a compromise on extended learning funding that will allow schools to get more money with loosened accountability requirements. The consensus agreement was finalized Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in the House education committee, where Senate sponsor Stewart presented her amended version of the bill. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, March 11, 2021, file photo State Sen. Mimi Stewart talks on the Senate floor during the annual legislative session, in Santa Fe, N.M. Education committee leaders in the state Legislature have reached a compromise on extended learning funding that will allow schools to get more money with loosened accountability requirements. The consensus agreement was finalized Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in the House education committee, where Senate sponsor Stewart presented her amended version of the bill. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, March 11, 2021, file photo State Sen. Mimi Stewart talks on the Senate floor during the annual legislative session, in Santa Fe, N.M. Education committee leaders in the state Legislature have reached a compromise on extended learning funding that will allow schools to get more money with loosened accountability requirements. The consensus agreement was finalized Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in the House education committee, where Senate sponsor Stewart presented her amended version of the bill. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Legislators are advancing a plan to make up for lost learning time during the pandemic by paying teachers for additional learning time — but they won’t mandate an extended school calendar.

On Wednesday, the House education committee voted unanimously to recommend a Senate bill that tackles extended learning after the sponsor loosened requirements for the programs and cut a proposed one-year mandate for up to 25 additional school days.

Extended learning funding is central to the Legislature’s attempts in recent years to improve outcomes in New Mexico’s public schools, which are regularly ranked last in the nation.

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Years of research on programs in and out of the state suggest that extended learning programs can increase achievement and narrow the gap between affluent and low-income households. The programs work best when they extend the school year and keep students with their same teacher, according to non-partisan legislative research reports.

But school districts have resisted adopting the programs.

District leaders have said that staffing schools during the summer is the biggest barrier: Teachers often work other jobs, take vacations, or visit family in their home country. That’s despite the additional 6% to 14% they can gain in take-home pay by working the extra hours.

“Many educators in the rural areas choose education as a profession because it is 180 days or 190 days and whatever this brings us to, because they also farm and ranch,” said Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow, of southwestern New Mexico, who voted in favor of an amended Senate bill in the House education committee.

So few school districts have taken advantage of the extra funding that around $200 million has gone unspent.

Universal participation in the extended learning programs would cost the state around $285 million according to legislative analysts. Around half of schools have turned the program down in the past. Around $50 million is drawn from the unspent, reverted funds. The rest of the money would come from the general fund.

While the exact funding mechanism for extended learning may be further amended, Legislative analysts estimate the existing funds could cover a massive increase in use next year without drawing much on the general fund.

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“Last year when districts wanted more flexibility, they all said to us, ‘It’s too hard when it’s voluntary, just mandate it for us.’ So, this year, everybody’s changed their mind. So I’ve also changed mine,” said Democratic Sen. Mimi Stewart, who sponsored the bill.

With backing from Republican lawmakers, teacher unions and school administrators, the changes approved Wednesday by the House education committee are expected to pass both chambers of the Legislature in the final days of the regular session, which ends Saturday.

“Both were pretty popular in our respective chambers. And that’s what brought us together, and I think we have come to a good compromise,” said House education committee chairman Rep. Andres Romero of Albuquerque.

The amendments removed conflicts between Romero’s bill, a pilot program for extending the school day, and Stewart’s bill, which directs the bulk of the funding.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s education secretary, Ryan Stewart, also endorsed the Senate bill Wednesday.

The amended bill retained a measure that would make it easier for schools operating four days per week to access the extra funds by adding a fifth day.

It also creates an exception allowing students to be moved between teachers on a case-by-case basis.

But Stewart said the exception won’t allow school districts to “pick and choose and say, ‘we’re just gonna have a class with these students from all of these other classes.’ That’s summer school. It’s not these programs.”

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.