March 16, 2023

Governor signs bill expanding school learning hours

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

With just a little over a day to go in the 2023 legislative session, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill into law expanding learning time for students in the state’s public schools.

House Bill 130 will mandate an increase in learning time in public schools to 1,140 hours, plus additional professional development time for teachers, while allowing districts some flexibility in when to add the hours.

“With COVID and parents and so many kids struggling, it’s a challenging environment to make sure kids are getting their focus they need [in school],” Lujan Grisham said in an interview at the state Capitol Thursday.

At stake is the potential for students who have fallen behind — even before the COVID-19 pandemic — to bridge learning gaps while their teachers learn new skills to do their job to help students succeed. 

Under the provisions of HB 130, teachers in elementary schools would have 60 hours of professional development programming while those in middle or high schools would have 30 hours. 

The bill lets districts decide how and when to add the extra instructional hours. 

New Mexico has long ranked near or at the bottom in national reports on the state of public education in the country. The landmark 2018 Yazzie/Martinez court ruling said New Mexico must do more to provide enough resources for at-risk student populations — impoverished children, second-language learners and special-needs students — to ensure they have an equal chance to succeed academically. 

Rep. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, a high school teacher who introduced HB 130, said in an interview Thursday the extra learning time is “not just about opening up seat time but creating enrichment time for students to reinforce lessons they need to learn in class and providing more time within the school day for mental and social health.”

For teachers, he said, the professional development component of the bill allows them to get a classroom period off where they can watch another educator at work — perhaps on a class project the two teachers collaborated on — and learn not only classroom management skills but how to use data and other factors to better teach in the classroom. 

House Bill 130 initially drew criticism from Republican and rural lawmakers who said it would be hard on districts that may have difficulty extending learning time because of transportation challenges or other issues.

Other critics said the state should first work to ensure there are enough teachers to serve the state’s students before throwing more learning hours into the mix. 

Over time, more advocates came on board with the bill as they learned school districts would have control over how the extra learning and additional professional development time can be utilized.

Lujan Grisham said the budget contains over $300 million for the initiative, which will start in the next school year.

Last weekend House Bill 130 played a role in a Senate Finance Committee action to call back the budget legislation, House Bill 2, for a second vote a day after the committee initially approved it. 

During the second go-round, the committee added more money to the bill, including over $200 million for extra learning time initiatives for school districts. 

But the budget language did not tie those initiatives specifically to HB 130, which had cleared the House of Representatives but had not yet reached the Senate for a final vote of approval at the time. 

Romero said at the time the plan was to ensure the money was in the budget in case HB 130 did not garner support from the Senate. Had HB 130 not passed, the governor would have had more discretion to use the $200 million-plus for any extra learning programs. 

On Thursday, Lujan Grisham said she played a role in the behind-the-scenes discussion about the appropriation. 

“I wanted to make sure in the budget we had contingency language for a bill that was not yet passed late in the session,” she said. 

She said she wanted the money to be earmarked for extended learning initiatives in the budget even if HB 130 did not make it to the finish line.

Now, she said, the money can be connected to language in the bill, making it mandatory for districts to expand instructional hours. 

“The more time in the classroom, better results,” she said.