Progress on improving public education in New Mexico is off to a strong start thanks to the collaborative work of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democratic-led Legislature.

The governor’s bold education “moonshot” delivered almost $500 million more in recurring funds for K-12 classrooms, including $113 million targeted to at-risk students. A 6 percent pay raise for educators should help ease the pressure of a teacher shortage in our schools that worsened unchecked through the Martinez years. We also created a Cabinet-level department to focus on all aspects of early childhood education and child care in the state. The task for state policymakers is to allow these policies to take root, but also to consider the needs of children when they are not in school.

Now is the right time to put more support and investment into after-school learning, also known as Out-of-School Time informal education. There is ample evidence that it could help close the academic achievement gaps of our youngest learners. If New Mexico is going to transform our economy to support good jobs in science, technology, engineering and math in the future, we need well-educated adults. Evidence shows that what happens outside of the classroom can be equally as important as what happens inside.

That is why I am partnering with the New Mexico Out-of-School Time Network to hold the Lieutenant Governor’s Leadership Conference on Afterschool Learning on Oct. 22 in Albuquerque. We’ll bring together practitioners, educators, experts and advocates, legislators, business leaders, parents and students from across the state to find solutions and outline a path forward.

As a community, New Mexico would benefit by making a commitment to hardworking families that struggle to find a safe place for their children while they are at their jobs. Across our state, many thousands of kids are alone and unsupervised — or engaging in risky behaviors — between 3 and 6 p.m. — while parents are still at work. Quality after-school programs give parents peace of mind, providing a safe place for children to go when they are not in school, with structured educational activities under the careful eye of loving adults. They are frequently a lifeline for low-income parents’ continued employment.

Currently, after-school programs are offered in some of our public, private and charter schools, in faith-based centers and at local youth-focused centers like the Boys and Girls Clubs. Kids continue their learning at their own pace outside of the classroom, exploring interests that enrich children’s lives, from music, art and dance to sports, math, reading, theater and chess.

After-school programs get positive results. Research shows that children in after-school programs attend school more often, get better grades and are more likely to graduate. They are less likely to use drugs or alcohol.

New Mexico needs more quality after-school learning programs that keep children on track for high school, careers and productive lives. A recent mapping project by New Mexico Out-of-School Time Network reveals that rural areas with high poverty and high juvenile justice referral rates are lacking after-school programs, including Roswell, Alamogordo and Las Vegas. The truth is that there are not nearly enough after-school programs available across the state to meet the need of communities and families.

We can’t expect help from Washington, D.C. The president’s 2020 budget called for eliminating all federal funding for local after-school programs.

Policymakers at the state and local level must do everything possible to protect and increase funding for after-school programs. It is an essential component for New Mexico’s children’s chance at a fair and equitable education, and a brighter future.

Howie Morales is the New Mexico lieutenant governor.

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