SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Amid pressure from some parents and teachers, public schools across New Mexico have rejected tens of millions of dollars in state funding for extra learning days.
Each “no” vote from local school boards is a blow to the state Legislature’s signature education initiative.
Based on years of research about how best to improve academic outcomes for children and narrow the achievement gap for struggling students, the plan takes aim at the three idle summer months that hold back many students. The research found that extending the school year with the same teacher is more effective than summer school.
The measure would add 25 more days to the elementary school calendar which lawmakers hoped would boost dismal reading and math scores.
But even parents of children who are behind opposed additional learning time, demanding that their summer be kept long.
Until this year, extended learning programs were voluntary, and parents could decide if they wanted their kids to participate.
Now, parents like Lisa McCutchen, 33, of Carlsbad, feel like the state is “tying my hands as a parent and saying, we know better than you what your kids need.”
The struggle to reimagine New Mexico's education system has been further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic and what many have referred to as a lost year of learning.
In a weeks-long debate, Democratic legislative leaders considered making all extra days mandatory for children in all districts for the post-pandemic year. They compromised by dropping a statewide mandate and instead requiring participation by all students only at those schools that opted in.
The results are mixed: around twice as many children are expected to participate in programs this year, according to statistics from the Public Education Department. But many children will be left behind, regardless of how badly they need support.
Superintendents have cited various barriers to extending the school year.
“Teachers like to have their breaks. Teachers need that break, to be able to replenish themselves to get ready for next year,” said West Las Vegas Schools Superintendent Christopher Gutierrez, whose district opted to use federal funding for summer school and pass on state funding for extended learning.
In Carlsbad, the district’s 3-2 vote against added learning days left $15 million in state funding on the table at a time when officials are preparing for a steep decline in enrollment. Fewer babies born in the past decade will mean fewer students in the next one. And families in rural southeast New Mexico have left the state as oil and gas revenues continue declining. Meanwhile, proficiency rates have dropped even lower that pre-pandemic rates, when only 37% of students were proficient in reading and less than one-quarter were proficient in math.
Superintendent Gerry Washburn used the metaphor of a child in a wheelchair trying to get into a building. He said extra learning days for elementary students is “one of the few opportunities that we have to create a ramp for them to move forward.”
While McCutchen, in Carlsbad, said she can move her two sons forward by helping them at home, she acknowledged that not all families are as supportive due to job constraints, substance abuse, and other issues. McCutchen has a flexible schedule working with her husband. Together they run a construction business and a ranch.
She fears that adding school days this year could lead to year-round school in the future. She said a shorter summer also would interrupt plans to take her kids to the family ranch in Colorado where they’ll be learning on a working farm.
“The ones that are invested into their kids' lives and education, they’ll be okay,” said Carlsbad school board member Simon Rubio, adding that other kids not represented by parents at a recent meeting “don’t have a voice.”
Calls from parents and teachers opposed to extended learning have not only been louder, they've been more frequent.
Albuquerque Superintendent Scott Elder said the majority staff and community voted against adding more days.
Some parents support the extra time in an effort to reverse the “summer slide.”
“We don’t need a three-month summer. They just need some time off and then they go back,” said mom Rebecca Baca-Green, a solar saleswoman in Albuquerque in favor of a year-round school year. “I think there is a loss of learning that happens during the summer.”
She was able to send her 12-year-old to a college prep charter school with a longer calendar, but she fears for low-income families with less secure jobs who often juggle swing shifts and gig work.
New Mexico's education system routinely ranks last in the U.S. About 80% of its students are covered by a court ruling that found education falls short of constitutional standards, while two-thirds of its third graders are not proficient in reading and a similar fraction is behind in math.
Those statistics are expected to worsen due to the pandemic, as legislative analysts highlighted that students are behind anywhere from six weeks to nearly 30 weeks depending on the subject.
New Mexico schools already have fewer in-class days than many other states, in part because some districts have adopted a four-day model in an effort to attract teachers.
The Legislature passed the changes for extended learning with only weeks left for districts to poll parents and plan accordingly.
Jeannie Oakes, an expert at the Learning Policy Institute who has published research on New Mexico schools, said the state should give districts a full year to plan extending the learning year.
The state also offers a program targeted at older kids to add 10 days to the school year.
The Santa Fe district added 10 days — five at the beginning of the school year and the rest sprinkled throughout. Superintendent Veronica García called it “fairly painless" but noted that it was late notice for some parents who had already put down deposits on summer programs.
“If I were queen for a day, I would just add (the 10 days) to compulsory education and slowly incrementally move this forward,” she said, urging New Mexico to increase the number of school days to that of high-performing countries. “Internationally, kids go to school 10 months out of the year.”
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.