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New Mexico debates longer school year mandate, virus make-up

March 2, 2021 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would require public schools to extend the school year to help students catch up from the loss of learning during the pandemic.

The measure would stretch the next school year by 25 days for K-5 students and 10 days for most 6-12 schools by requiring them to participate in already funded extended learning programs.

Schools were slow to embrace the programs, citing staffing issues, despite the fact that more work would increase teacher take-home pay by 6% to 14% depending on the grade level. The programs eventually were canceled because of the pandemic.

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“Extending the school year is shown to be one of the best things you can do for student achievement,” said bill sponsor Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, citing legislative research that drove the passage of the programs in 2019.

The mandate for next year would only take effect if Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s current health order curbing in-person schooling is lifted, and it would only last for the 2021-2022 school year.

Because the programs haven’t been used, about $200 million in funding has piled up. That’s more than enough to cover the cost of the proposal, according to a legislative analysis.

In the House, lawmakers are considering a measure that would tap the funds for longer school days instead of extending the school calendar. That bill, sponsored by House Education Committee Rep. Andres Romero, has Republican support.

“It is highly unlikely that both bills make it through the two chambers,” said Dennis Roch, president of the New Mexico School Superintendents Association. The group supports the House bill for its flexibility and is backing the Senate bill after Stewart made tweaks to accommodate four-day schools.

While the state Public Education Department wants more schools to embrace the programs, it hasn’t weighed in on a particular approach.

“The PED supports expanding instructional time as a strategy to improve academic outcomes, and we will continue to work with legislators who are currently exploring the best way to achieve that goal,” department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said.

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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.