New Mexico education struggle sparks accountability push in state budget proposal

Far too many schools in New Mexico are underperforming, and the state’s top education official says the focus of his agency’s next budget proposal will be on holding districts and schools responsible for student achievement.

The budget blueprint is due next Thursday, but Public Education Secretary Arsenio Romero and other officials have declined to release any details before the deadline, the Albuquerque Journal reported Friday.

The proposed spending plan will follow the overdue release last month of results from spring standardized testing. The results show just 38% of tested students were proficient in reading, marking a slight uptick from the previous year. However, statewide math proficiency stands stagnant at 24%.

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Romero sent a letter last week to the state’s school districts calling for accountability from his own department, district leaders, charter schools, teacher unions as well as families. He wrote that he was alarmed by the high number of low-performing schools and what that means for the state.

“Far too many of our schools are underperforming. Students statewide have low reading and math proficiencies. This is unacceptable,” the letter stated. “It is time for accountability. We owe this accountability to our state’s most precious resource: children.”

In addition to its funding request, the Public Education Department also aims to use proposed new rules to enforce accountability. One such rule would establish an accreditation process for school districts.

If a district is not approved for accreditation, the state agency could mandate the district create a plan to correct course or the agency could take over that district’s educational and operational planning.

A public hearing for that rule is scheduled for Dec. 18 in Santa Fe.

American Federation of Teachers New Mexico President Whitney Holland said Romero’s letter has caused some concern among educators and she questioned what more accountability would look like.

“We are already facing a vacancy crisis, and when we say things like ‘Be more accountable’ — I think we have to be really careful, because that’s going to disincentivize the profession,” Holland said.

Legislative analysts also have called out the Public Education Department’s delay in releasing the spring assessment results. Last year, the department published that data Sept. 1, and though it promised a quicker turnaround this year, did not release the information until Nov. 1.

Senior Policy Analyst Tim Bedeaux told members of the Legislative Education Study Committee during a meeting last week that the goal should be to get the data sooner so that lawmakers have enough time before the January start of their legislative session to understand whether the state’s investments are working.

Amanda Aragon, executive director of the advocacy group NewMexicoKidsCAN, has said that the improvements in reading proficiency are positive but that overall the numbers are concerning for key groups of students. She pointed out that Hispanic, Native American and economically disadvantaged students are behind the statewide averages.

Lawmakers also have criticized the lack of progress New Mexico students have shown, particularly when it comes to graduation rates.

Democratic Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup, who chairs the legislative committee, directed criticism toward districts over lagging student outcomes. He noted that cash balances have grown over recent years as student populations have declined.

“We haven’t moved the needle at all,” he said. “We’re paying more for kids, and we’re still not getting there.”

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