May 16, 2017

Guv’s cuts to summer learning hurts vulnerable children, worsens achievement gap

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Recently—and very quietly—the state Public Education Department (PED) appears to have cut $3 million or more from a popular summer learning program for young children ages 5 to 8 set to begin next month. As a result, 6,100 fewer children across New Mexico will receive classroom instruction that is proven to narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and their peers, increase skills, and improve student test scores. The state-funded K–3 Plus initiative is innovative – and it works. PED’s decision to slash funding for it is morally wrong and should be reversed.

K–3 Plus extends the school year for children entering kindergarten through third grade by 25 instructional days beginning in the summer before school starts, in eligible schools. It means substantially more educational time for students in low-performing or high-poverty public elementary schools. Created under the Richardson administration, the positive benefits of this voluntary enrollment program for youngsters’ reading, writing and math skills have been recognized nationally.

Bill Soules is a Democratic member of the Senate from Las Cruces representing District 37.

Children from low-income homes—and New Mexico has many poor children—often start out behind when they enroll in kindergarten. The extra time in the classroom helps them catch up and close the achievement gap. In addition to levelling the playing field now, it also reduces the need and the cost for remediation in later grades.

Last summer, 21,149 children participated in the voluntary program. This year PED is allowing just 14,905 kids to enroll, even though K-3 Plus is in high demand among parents, students and teachers, and is enormously popular wherever it has been offered.

It is unclear why PED reduced the number of students allowed to participate so drastically. PED used its administrative power to impose a 30 percent reduction on the number of participating students, though the Legislature appropriated the exact same amount of funds during the 2017 legislative session as it did the previous year. PED has partially relied on the need to ensure cuts don’t happen to summer 2018 programs to justify some of the cuts to this summer’s program, but it doesn’t add up. Information provided by PED shows only a 4 percent reduction in summer 2017 awards compared with summer 2016 awards. Given the broad authority the department has to spend on many below-the line appropriations, it could have used funds appropriated for interventions and early literacy to ensure families have access to this successful program.

In Las Cruces 2,679 children enrolled and participated in K-3 Plus during the 2016 summer in 22 schools last year. The demand was huge. For summer 2017, PED initially told LCPS to enroll only 2,079 children, a large reduction. Now, PED has only authorized LCPS to serve 1,767 students – or 34 percent fewer kids than last summer, and only 18 schools were approved. LCPS is doing its best to hold the line to serve more kids by cutting out field trips, buses and technology.

Albuquerque will see 20 schools pushed out of the K-3 Plus summer learning program, with almost 2,000 fewer seats for students. The pattern is being replicated in communities across the state.

What will be the alternative to structured summer learning for many of these kids? Watching TV all day while eating junk food instead of a nutritious lunch? Many will be in unsafe and unsupervised environments. If it needs to be said again: New Mexico already ranks 50th in the nation in child well-being.

Parents who were planning to enroll their kids have only recently learned of the PED cuts. They are scrambling to find other options. The announcement also came after registration for many other free public programs had closed. Childcare costs up to $400 per week. How can most New Mexico families afford that?

A few years back as a district attorney, Gov. Susana Martinez wrote in a truancy project pamphlet: “Let’s make education a top priority in Dona Ana County by giving our youth the opportunities they deserve.” A governor who really cares about children or third graders’ ability to read would never stand for these cuts by her Education department.

Although recent—and outrageous—cuts to bilingual programs have received more media attention than K-3 summer learning cuts, residents should not overlook them.

Like so many of Gov. Martinez’s policy decisions, this one was taken with no advance consultation with parents, teachers or schools, nor discussions with any legislators who are keenly interested in public education. There is still time to fix this dreadful decision. Whether you are a parent or grandparent, or whether you simply care about the future generation of New Mexicans, call PED or Gov. Martinez herself and tell them to reverse these cuts to summer learning K-3 Plus.

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