January 28, 2023

Additional learning time soars through key committee with bipartisan support

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Educators may be divided on a bill that would extend the number of hours they spend teaching students and building their own skills and knowledge, but lawmakers displayed rare bipartisan support for the initiative.

The House Education Committee on Friday voted unanimously to endorse House Bill 130, which would mandate an increase in learning time in public schools to 1,140 hours, including up to 60 hours of professional development for teachers, while allowing districts some flexibility in when to add the hours.

“This is a good start to address some of the needs we have,” said Rep. Brian Baca, R-Los Lunas.

Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, said lawmakers have to take the bill seriously because of the “tremendous negative impact on our students” stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some lawmakers, particularly those in rural communities with four-day weeks in public schools, initially expressed displeasure with the idea of expanding to a fifth day or into the summer months when the plan was introduced. However, the bill approved by the committee would let districts decide how and where to add the new hours — either 60 or 150 more required hours, depending on the grade level.

That means districts could choose to add time to each school day rather than add days to the annual calendar. 

Under HB 130, schools would receive extra state funding for the additional hours; although, the bill does not include an appropriation. The total cost estimates of the initiative range from $200 million to $240 million.

Advocates of the measure lauded the House Education Committee for coming to a consensus.

Ellen Bernstein president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, testified in support of the bill. She said in an interview she thinks it is “responsive, has compromise and is based on what we know from both practice and research: You have to give adults time” for professional development.

Mandi Torrez a retired educator who now works as the education reform director for Think New Mexico, said, “What’s great about this bill is that there has been so much cooperation.”

Several national reports on public education over the years have recommended more professional development time for teachers, she said, adding, “Everyone has come together to get this done.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham touted additional learning time as one of the key education initiatives in her proposed spending plan for fiscal year 2024 and allocated $220 million for the effort.

Her spokeswoman, Nora Meyers Sackett, wrote in an email Friday the Governor’s Office was pleased to see lawmakers take up legislation that aligns with Lujan Grisham’s agenda.

“The governor’s priority is ensuring additional student learning time to continue closing the state’s achievement gap while also supporting teacher professional work time,” Sackett wrote. “We look forward to continuing to work with legislators to get that across the finish line.”

While many superintendents, school district lobbyists, teachers and charter school advocates praised the bill — or at least most aspects of it — saying it could help close the state’s achievement gaps, other educators were not swayed.

Some said lawmakers need to focus first on hiring more counselors, bilingual employees and other support staff to aid students struggling with behavioral issues and other problems before adding hours to their school day.

Retired public school teacher Jennifer St. Clair said more hours at schools that lack sufficient staff “causes exhausted kids, exhausted educators.”

She noted an analysis by the Legislative Education Study Committee found extended learning hours can lead to a “modest but statistically significant impact on student achievement in both reading and math” — but she questioned whether taxpayers should be investing hundreds of millions of their dollars for only a modest gain.

Advocates for the plan said it would help address two problems. 

The first is bringing the state into compliance with a 2018 court ruling in a landmark education lawsuit that said New Mexico was not providing enough resources for certain groups of students, including Indigenous children, those from low-income families, English learners and special-education students. 

The second is overcoming the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to steep learning losses.

The report by the Legislative Education Study Committee said increasing the minimum learning hours in schools to 1,140 would “place New Mexico among the highest hour requirements in the 50 states, but other states rarely contemplate embedded professional work within their instruction hours.”

Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Education Leaders, spoke in favor of the bill at the hearing. In an interview afterward, he said many educators are excited by the “flexibility needed locally” to help students’ “chances of improvement.”

The division among educators, he said, is really about “how to roll it out.”

Another bill introduced this week in the House also calls for increasing public school hours. House Bill 194, introduced by Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, and Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, would expand the school year to 1,140 hours but would include 80 hours of professional development for teachers rather than 60.

Stewart said Friday the 80 professional development hours in HB 194 would be required of teachers in addition to the 1,140 instructional hours — not included within them.

That bill, filed Wednesday, has not yet been scheduled for an initial hearing.