NM education chief calls for targeted investments

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico needs to continue making targeted investments in reading initiatives and teacher training programs if it wants to see more improvements in student achievement, the head of the New Mexico Public Education Department told lawmakers Thursday.

Hanna Skandera outlined her agency's budget request before the Legislative Finance Committee. It includes about $68 million in new spending that focuses on everything from ensuring students can read by the time they get to the third grade to revamping teacher training, developing an early warning system to reduce the dropout rate and offering more support for teachers and principals.

"When we see a student struggling or a school struggling, we need to intervene, provide support for them and give them an opportunity to close the gaps that they have," Skandera said. "We have seen good results when we do targeted investments."

She pointed to a program started last year in which successful school leaders are paired with those in struggling schools. About 70 percent of participating principals increased or maintained their school's letter grade in the first year. The department wants to expand the mentorship program to teachers.

The department is also working with colleges and universities around the state to revamp the way teachers are trained, and funding is being sought to help school districts recruit and retain teachers in hard-to-fill positions, including bilingual and special education spots.

Skandera said paying teachers more and offering incentives have become even more important, particularly in southeastern New Mexico where school districts are competing with the booming oil-and-gas industry as they try to attract workers.

Raising the base pay for starting teachers and expanding a pay-for-performance program are among the pushes the department and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will make as the Legislature hashes out the budget during the 60-day session that begins in January.

With dropping oil prices, lawmakers will have fewer revenues to work with.

New Mexico provides most of the money for public school operations, unlike some other states that rely on local communities to help finance their schools. The budget this year for K-12 public education was $2.7 billion, which represents 44 percent of the state's total budget.

Among the Public Education Department's other funding requests is $15.5 million to prepare kindergarten through third-grade students as they learn to read. That would mark a $1 million increase over current spending on the reading initiative.

The department also wants to expand a program that extends the school year for kindergarten through third grade in hopes of boosting cognitive skills in young students.

Other proposals call for increasing access to pre-K programs, providing parents online access to attendance records, grades and other information, and continuing with incentives aimed at attracting math and science teachers.

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