A pair of state-funded programs designed to help narrow the achievement gap for struggling public school students in New Mexico has been canceled for the summer months and upcoming school year.
Earlier this week, the Public Education Department canceled K-5 Plus, which would have added 25 summer days of classroom time at participating elementary schools, and Extended Learning, which would have added 10 days of instructional time to the academic calendar of any schools that applied. Both programs were voluntary, meaning students were not required to participate.
Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said he hopes to persuade lawmakers to find a way to extend the 2020-21 school year to make up for the program losses.
In a letter to superintendents and charter school leaders about the program cancellations, Stewart cited challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It would be difficult to meet program requirements, which include students remaining with the same teacher during the regular school year and participation-based funding, while adhering to public health requirements,” Stewart said in the letter.
K-5 Plus, an expanded version of a program called K-3 Plus that offered summer classroom time to low-income children in kindergarten through third grade, and Extended Learning were launched last year after lawmakers and the governor initiated sweeping education reforms and sharply increased education funding. Legislators and experts had touted K-3 Plus for its success in boosting young students’ reading and math proficiency rates and helping to close a learning gap for low-income kids.
The New Mexico Legislature had budgeted $191 million for K-5 Plus and Extended Learning for the summer of 2020 and the 2020-21 school year. Under state law, the money would remain available to fund those programs the following year. However, with the state facing a more than $2 billion shortfall in projected revenues in the upcoming fiscal year, funding levels for all state agencies are uncertain. Lawmakers will meet in mid-June for a special legislative session to rework the fiscal year 2021 budget approved earlier this year.
“As we head into the special session, the department will work with the Legislature to determine what, if any, options for extended school year may be available that can be conducted in a safe manner,” Stewart said in his letter to school leaders.
“Depending on the outcome of these conversations and funding appropriated in the special session, it is possible that some form of extended school year programming may be available for summer of 2021,” he added.
According to the Public Education Department, 73,246 students were expected to take part in Extended Learning in the next school year, while 20,190 students in kindergarten through fifth grade were expected to participate in K-5 Plus this summer. An additional 3,147 students were expected to pilot a new K-12 Plus program, which would have served students at all levels.
Last summer, 1,168 students at 11 Santa Fe Public Schools sites in took part in K-5 Plus, while 4,992 students at 13 sites took part in Extended Learning during the school year that just ended.
When K-5 Plus was launched hastily last spring after the legislative session that funded it, the program drew criticism from some legislators and educators for its stringent requirements, such as a mandate that a teacher in the summer program must remain in a classroom with the same group of students the following school year. That made it difficult for many districts to organize K-5 Plus classrooms, especially at small schools, in time to meet a tight deadline to apply for summer 2019 funding.
Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said she hopes lawmakers consider dipping into the multibillion-dollar state Land Grant Permanent Fund or implement tax reforms to raise revenue for the programs in fiscal year 2022.
“It will require a lot of courage, but we need Legislators to look at ways of funding these programs in the future,” García said. “Schools do pretty well to get about one year’s growth in one year, but to help catch students up when they start behind is very difficult, and that’s what these programs do.”
State Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, has criticized K-5 Plus and Extended Learning for being voluntary. That could be reexamined before either is implemented again, she said Thursday.
“Rather than doing two programs that are up to districts and complicated to administer because of their voluntary nature, let’s just extend the school year by 10 mandatory days,” said Sen. Stewart, a former special-education teacher and a member of the Senate Education Committee.
“I’m most concerned with getting kids back in the classroom and restarting normal schooling as soon as possible because I don’t see how we can offer these programs effectively online,” she added.