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Independent analysis: New Mexico K-12 school opening rate among slowest in US

As if New Mexico students didn’t already face serious challenges, see this quote from the New York Times (which, to their credit has been pushing for schools to reopen). 

Unfortunately, you can’t embed the map here, but as of Feb. 22, New  Mexico schools are among the least reopened in the entire nation, a situation that is problematic for our State and its future. According to the Burbio data:

New Mexico schools are 21.3% open;
Arizona is 68.6%;
Utah is 90.2%;
Colorado is 77.1%;
Oklahoma is 67.5%;
Texas is 90.8%.

Whether these states spend more or less than New Mexico on K-12 and whether or not they have expensive pre-K programs, every other state in the region is blowing the doors off New Mexico. Of course, our State’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools, has already punted on the entire 2020-2021 school year.

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Let them play! And let them go to school!

The fact that Albuquerque Public Schools has refused to reopen its doors to students for the duration of the 2020-2021 school year means (under Gov. Lujan Grisham’s COVID 19 rubric) that students at APS schools won’t be able to play sports. This led to protests over the weekend.

Should APS students be able to play sports? Should they be allowed to go back to school? The simple answer is YES to both. For the duration of COVID 19 the Rio Grande Foundation has urged policymakers to maximize individuals’ ability to decide how much risk they are willing to tolerate in going about their lives (or taking COVID precautions).

Ultimately, the problem here is one-size-fits-all policies that put policymakers in charge of decisions for which they simply do not have the capacity to make basic tradeoffs. The one-size-fits-all component transcends COVID. It has been a harmful feature of the government education monopoly for decades.

Of course, private schools have been open throughout the COVID situation. They have both a financial interest in what students and families want (as opposed to what unions want).


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Tracking New Mexico School District Reopening

The Rio Grande Foundation has long called for basic education reforms that would empower parents and families when it comes to education resources including school choice. But, with the onset of COVID 19 and many districts moving to “virtual only” models, we have joined the Centers for Disease Control and many others in calling for students to return to their classrooms.

We will be tracking announced school reopenings under Gov. Lujan Grisham’s latest orders which call for hybrid learning for ALL students to begin on February 8. Check this space for updates. We gleaned this information from various district and news websites. If you have new info please let us know at:

AlamogordoSecondary – Feb. 16, Elementary – Feb. 22
AlbuquerqueDelayed decision
ArtesiaFeb. 8
BloomfieldSome primary students in hybrid already, Secondary – Feb. 16
CarlsbadFeb. 8
CentralSecondary – Feb. 16
CloudcroftPrimary already in-person, Secondary – Feb. 9
ClovisPre-K-5th already in hybrid, other grades under consideration
CubaRemote through March 5
EstanciaSecondary – Feb. 8
FarmingtonPrimary already hybrid, 6th, 9th graders – Feb 8, Other secondary Feb. 16
Fort SumnerMiddle, High school – Feb. 8
Gallup-McKinleyAll grades — Feb. 9
HobbsElementary – Feb. 8, 6th, 9th, 10th grade – Feb. 11-12, all students – Feb. 16
Las CrucesWill allow students who need in-person, but delayed broader reopening
Las VegasWill remain virtual throughout the rest of the school year
Magdalena6th-12th grade – Feb. 8
PortalesAll grades — Feb. 9
Rio RanchoElementary students have been in hybrid model. No broader plan yet
RoswellWill restart this month, no date yet
Santa FeAll grades — Feb. 22
SilverMiddle, High school – Feb. 15-18
Truth or ConsequencesAll students Feb. 16
TucumcariAll students Feb. 8
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RGF recent radio appearances

This has been a big week for the Rio Grande Foundation on the air. Paul recently sat down with Bob Clark of KKOB 96.3FM. You can find that show here. Bob and Paul discuss numerous topics from the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her legacy as well as well as Paul’s family’s efforts to home school their children.

Paul also sat down with Jim Williams at KNKT Radio 107.1 FM. We discussed numerous issues in their discussion. You can listen to that discussion at the link above or by clicking on the image below.

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Expanding New Mexico state pre-K would be a costly mistake

The following appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on August 10, 2020:

The Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) recently released a study of the “inaugural cohort” of the state’s pre-K program, concluding that “prekindergarten remains a cost-effective way to improve student outcomes.” But the LFC’s own data shows that expanding pre-K would instead be a costly mistake.

The LFC’s study cites “statistically significant” improvements in children’s outcomes, which in real life are essentially meaningless. Children who attended pre-K scored barely higher on the six kindergarten-entry readiness domains measured — just a couple of percentage points at most. In the crucial areas of literacy and mathematics, only about 60% were kindergarten-ready, whether they attended pre-K or not.

Differences in third-grade PARCC proficiencies, too, were tiny. Almost three-quarters of both pre-K and non-pre-K groups failed to meet third-grade PARCC proficiency in English: 70.3% of pre-K attendees and 71.9% of non-attendees. Roughly two-thirds of both groups failed to meet standards in math: 65.9% of children who went to pre-K compared to 68.1% of children who did not.

If pre-K were affecting children’s achievement, New Mexico’s National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores would be rising as pre-K attendance goes up. From 2011 to 2019, however, while the percentage of fourth-graders who had attended pre-K almost tripled, the percentage scoring at or above Basic on the NAEP reading exam remained precisely the same at 53%. In math, that percentage actually declined from 75% to 72%.

The largest outcome differences the LFC reports are for chronic absence — missing over 10% of school — and high school graduation within four years. Twelve percent of children who went to pre-K were chronically absent compared to 16% of those who did not attend. Eighty percent of the 1,540 students in the inaugural pre-K cohort graduated within four years compared to 74% of the roughly 25,000 students who had not gone to pre-K 14 years prior.

Both these differences are likely caused by parents, though, not by children starting school when they’re 4 instead of 5. Parents who voluntarily send their 4-year-old to school for an entire year also probably try harder to make sure their child attends school regularly and graduates on time.

That is, children who attend pre-K have exactly the parents most likely to ensure their success throughout schooling. And the influence of a child’s parents greatly outweighs a single year of school, whether that’s pre-K or fifth grade.

Finally, the LFC study concludes that pre-K is a cost-effective use of taxpayer dollars. But compared to what? “Cost effectiveness” means comparing various programs to determine which yield the biggest results for the same expenditure of limited resources.

Policymakers can’t decide if spending $100 on Program X makes sense if they only know it yields an eventual benefit of $106. How does $106 compare to the benefit of spending $100 on other programs with the same goal? In the case of improving school achievement, the LFC itself has identified approaches far more effective than pre-K.

In a 2017 study, the LFC found that teacher quality had the “most impact on a student’s academic achievement” of all school-related factors, reporting positive effects which were orders of magnitude larger than any associated with pre-K. Children’s PARCC scores in math and reading varied by up to 49 percentage points over three years, depending on whether they had effective or ineffective teachers. Low-performing schools that participated in “Teachers Pursuing Excellence” peer mentoring increased the percentage of students scoring at proficient or above on the PARCC exam from 24% to 35% in reading and 16% to 27% in math, over just two years.

Policymakers should be seeking the most effective use of resources to improve student outcomes and help children who need help the most. Based on the LFC’s recent study, adding a pre-K grade to the public schools seems like more of a “cost-effective way” to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.

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Rio Grande Foundation signs onto amicus brief in Michigan v. DeVos supporting non-public schools

The Rio Grande Foundation has signed onto an amicus brief filed Wednesday in Michigan v. DeVos, a critical legal dispute in federal court between a group of state attorneys general (including New Mexico’s Hector Balderas) and the federal Education Department over the availability of CARES Act funding for private schools. The Foundation joins a coalition of 38 state and national groups representing the interests of private schools and parental choice.

As Rio Grande Foundation president Paul Gessing pointed out, “The Rio Grande Foundation has long held that education dollars should fund students, not bureaucracies. COVID-19’s impact on America’s students was not confined to public school sectors. Congress allocated critical funding to both public and private schools with the intent of helping schools reopen safely and serve their students.”

Background: The $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act, passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, included an Education Stabilization Fund to support schools with the costs of safely reopening and navigating the crisis. The law directed the Department of Education to distribute these funds “equitably” between public and private schools and students but did not dictate exactly how the funds should be distributed.

On June 25, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued an interim final rule that gives states and local public-school districts options for how to fairly allocate CARES Act relief to private schools. Many states and local school districts refused to follow the rule. Nine attorneys general and four metropolitan school districts, including Balderas filed a multi-state federal lawsuit against the Education Department challenging the interim final rule and argued that the majority of the funding should be directed to public schools.

This amicus, on behalf of 38 state and national groups, represents the important interests of America’s private schools in this critical debate. COVID-19’s impact on education was not restricted to public schools. With more than 5 million students attending 33,000 schools, WILL and our coalition partners make clear that federal CARES Act relief is critical for the safety and education of the nearly 10% of American students attending private schools.

WILL’s amicus is joined by associations and advocacy groups that represent and support private schools and their families in Wisconsin, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and throughout the nation, that serve Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Islamic, Lutheran, other Christian, and independent secular schools, and that collectively educate millions of students.

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My family will home school this fall. Other families should have options as well.

The following opinion piece appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News on Sunday, July 26, 2020:

As the head of New Mexico’s free market think tank and a frequent critic of New Mexico’s K-12 system, many are surprised to hear that my two school-age children have been in traditional public schools throughout their educational careers. That will change this fall due to COVID 19 and the policies being imposed by the State. According to numerous reports, parents across our nation are doing the same.

This crisis and our response to it is an opportunity for policymakers to reconsider how education works in the State of New Mexico. As a reminder, New Mexico has perpetually found itself among the lowest-performing education systems in the nation. Innovative thinking, especially policies that redirect funding to students as opposed to bureaucracies, could have positive impacts now and in the future.

While we at the Rio Grande Foundation are often critical of the powers that be in New Mexico education policy, this is not the case regarding COVID 19 and the reopening plans. In fact, our usual criticism is a systemic one and that is the situation here. The idea that one model of schooling makes sense for all students in normal times is faulty. Now, with such widely-variable views on COVID 19 and the appropriate response to it (not to mention the different educational needs for students of different ages and abilities) developing solutions that satisfy everyone is impossible.

For my family with elementary school aged children, the combination of mask wearing throughout the day and “social distancing” being imposed was a deal-breaker. And, while I support “virtual” or “hybrid” learning for some children, I simply don’t think the schools or educators are ready to deploy them on a large scale in an effective manner. We saw this firsthand in spring when the schools suddenly shut down.

Hopefully, school systems have better plans in place now, but the situation remains fluid and chaotic. New Mexico students are already behind due to lost months at the end of last school year. The chaos of masks in the classroom and a hybrid/virtual model that is completely new and unfamiliar to many students and teachers is not likely to lead to improved outcomes.

That is not just unfortunate: it is tragic.

My family is blessed. We can make home schooling work and we’ve already spent considerable time preparing for this big change. Unfortunately, that is not the case for all New Mexico families, especially low-income and minority families.

The COVID 19 situation leaves no “easy” choices, but with so many New Mexicans looking for educational options or even taking on the task of educating their own children, shouldn’t the tax dollars they pay into the system follow the child? Shouldn’t parents have resources made available to purchase computers and other curriculum materials for their children or, if they prefer, shouldn’t they be able to send their child to the school of their own choice? All of these choices involve major time and financial sacrifices by parents in tough economic times. Rather than penalizing these families, we believe the funding should follow the child and help them directly.

South Carolina’s Governor just announced the state will use $32 million to fund low-income families directly this fall. The scholarships are worth up to $6,500 each. These are the solutions that should be happening in New Mexico. Families are paying taxes for a school system that in times of “normalcy” is considered “inadequate” (Yazzie lawsuit). With many limitations and adjustments being made now, that system and the families it serves now face greater challenges than ever before.

I truly feel for our children who have lost so much already. The Legislature and Governor have long claimed to care for our children. It is time to call their bluff and fund children, not bureaucracies.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility

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New RGF brief debunks LFC report on pre-K: Why Expanding New Mexico State Pre-K Won’t Help the Children Who Need Help the Most

Today’s Albuquerque Journalcontained a report which discussed in glowing terms New Mexico’s expansion of pre-K programs. The reality is not nearly so compelling as Katharine Stevens argues in her new policy brief “Why Expanding New Mexico State Pre-K Won’t Help the Children Who Need Help the Most.”

The question of how to expand “early childhood” programs in New Mexico has long been one of the most contentious public policy issues in the state. Recently, the Legislative Finance Committee produced a new report “Prekindergarten Quality and Educational Outcomes,”The report makes multiple positive claims about the effectiveness of pre-K that Katharine Stevens addresses in her new policy brief, “Why Expanding New Mexico State Pre-K Won’t Help the Children Who Need Help the Most.”

In her brief, Stevens discusses several, glaring flaws in the LFC report.

  • Correlation vs. Causation:The LFC report assumes that improved results among students who participated in pre-K programs is the result of those programs. The reality is that participation is voluntary and motivated parents are the ones who will enroll their children in such programs and take the time to ensure they get to school every day. It is no surprise that parents who value the program the most have children who perform better than average.
  • Failure to ConsiderRigorous, Randomized Studies of Pre-K Programs: One of the serious challenges of social science is the relative lack of randomized control groups. There are, however, two important studies of pre-K that use randomized control groups (unlike the LFC or other New Mexico reports). One such study cited by Stevens is from Tennessee and another involved Head Start.

New Mexico has dramatically expanded pre-K spending over the last decade, which provides the opportunity to add to the evidence on pre-K’s effect on academic achievement. Stevens notes, however, that even as New Mexico has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into pre-K its test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have remained stagnant.  

  • Finally, the LFC misuses the concept of Cost-Effectiveness. In public policy, Stevens writes, “cost effectiveness does not mean showing that the benefit of an intervention outweighs the cost. It means comparing various interventions to determine which ones yield the greatest benefit for resources spent to accomplish a particular policy goal.”

As Stevens concludes: “The fight for pre-K, however well intended, is the wrong fight for children who need our help the most. If New Mexico’s goal is to expand the school system and provide free pre- school to wealthier parents who otherwise have to pay for it, adding a pre-K grade to the public schools makes perfect sense. If the state’s goal is to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children, however, it is a deeply misguided approach.”

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COVID-19 must spur long-overdue reform to NM education system

The following opinion piece appeared in the Carlsbad Current Argus and several other papers on or around July 13, 2020.

Recently, a judge denied a request made by the Lujan Grisham Administration that the Yazzie lawsuit be dropped. That lawsuit claims that New Mexico’s K-12 system is “inadequate.” Many would argue that our K-12 system has long been “inadequate” due to the State’s poor outcomes.

We wholeheartedly agree that New Mexico’s education system has long been “inadequate,” though the issue is not a lack of funding. The ongoing COVID 19 pandemic has exposed the many inadequacies of our K-12 system as well. Parents (and when schools closed this spring, I had two children in public schools) were abruptly forced into the role of home-school teacher in March.

A return to “normalcy” is not on the horizon and that will truly challenge our K-12 system. In advance of the start of school in less than one month, the Public Education Department has presented us with a highly-restrictive proposed opening plan for the fall school year. The hybrid learning model (partially online and partially in-person) is a worthwhile effort, but even staunch advocates of online learning recognize that not all children learn well in a digital environment. That especially includes younger children.

The challenges of computer and broadband access in many parts of our State raise all kinds of additional questions and problems for students, parents, educators, and administrators alike.

The “virtual” experience this spring was cobbled together and disorganized. We hope for something better this fall, but with mask requirements for students and staff alike, social-distancing, and numerous other restrictions, there will be a big increase in demand for alternatives.

A recent RealClear Opinion Research survey of registered voters shows that support for educational choice show that 40% of families are more likely to homeschool or virtual school due to the lockdowns. The poll further found that 64% support school choice. In other words, home schooling, virtual learning, and private schools having more flexible learning models are all going to be explored and likely followed by increasing numbers of New Mexicans.

With so many New Mexicans looking for educational options or even taking on the task of educating their own children, shouldn’t the tax dollars they pay into the system follow the child? Shouldn’t parents have the resources made available to purchase computers and other curriculum materials for their children or, if they prefer, shouldn’t they be able to send their child to the school of their own choice? All of these choices involve major time and financial sacrifices by parents in tough economic times. Rather than penalizing these families, we believe the funding should follow the child and help them directly.

The Rio Grande Foundation has long advocated for school choice in New Mexico. But unions and the political establishment have stood in the way. With the advent of the COVID 19 epidemic we have seen a rapid disruption in traditional education techniques. Problems with our one-size-fits-all K-12 model have laid bare the true “inadequacies” of our educational system. The “old” model of students in one building in lines of desks will likely not return for some time and possibly forever.

The most innovative model available today is “Education Savings Accounts” or ESA’s. There are five ESA active programs in five states: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. While the details vary by State the basic idea is to allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts. Those funds can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, educational therapies, community college costs, and other higher education expenses.

ESA programs are less well-established than other “school choice” programs like charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, and home schooling, but the pandemic is a big problem and policymakers need to have big and innovative solutions. Now, more than ever, those solutions will not work for all students.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility

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Rio Grande Foundation Study: Albuquerque Public Schools Spend Big, don’t See Results

Comparing school districts in New Mexico is often challenging. Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) is one of the largest districts in the entire country. With that come certain “efficiencies of scale” as well as some serious drawbacks.

The answer is to compare similar districts with roughly similar demographics across state lines. Laura Abendroth a policy analyst with the Rio Grande Foundation has crunched the numbers in a detailed research project on the issue of school funding among various school districts of similar demographics. The paper is, “Albuquerque Public Schools v. Southwestern Regional School Districts: How Does Spending and Student Performance Stack Up?”

In advance of this project Abendroth considered numerous large school districts in states surrounding New Mexico. The primary consideration (aside from size) was demographics and poverty.

In addition to APS, Abendroth studied the Austin (TX) ISD, Fort Worth ISD, Denver Public Schools, Mesa Public Schools, and Alpine (UT) Public Schools.

Making solid comparisons across state lines is never easy. For example APS has the highest percentage of Hispanics and Native Americans of the districts studied, but APS has a lower percentage of “English Language Learners” than any district beside Alpine.

Abendroth found (during the 2019-2020 school year) that while Austin ISD’s spending is quite high relative to ALL other districts studied at $28,000 per pupil, APS spends the next-largest amount at $17,571. Denver spent $16,000 per pupil and the other districts all spent $11,000 or so. So, APS is a relatively big-spender on a per-pupil basis.

Indeed APS spends about 20% of its operating budget on capital projects while the other districts spend just 10% of their budgets. Notably, most of those districts have smaller overall budgets, thus making that capital outlay figure even larger in real terms.

Also, APS DOES spend a lot of money in the classroom. In fact, APS class sizes are just 10.7. Austin and Fort Worth are in the mid-teens per class while Denver and Mesa are very close to 20. Alpine School District has 23.6 students on average.

Unfortunately for APS students all of this spending and extra attention in the classroom doesn’t have the impact we would like. Across the board (in terms of graduation and 4thand 8thgrade reading and math NAEP scores) APS only outperforms Fort Worth ISD. To be blunt, APS taxpayers are not really getting their money’s worth.

While solutions are beyond the scope of Abendroth’s paper the Rio Grande Foundation has touted more robust “school choice” options, elimination of LEED mandates and “Prevailing Wage” laws both of which drive up construction costs, and reduction in overall District overhead.