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New Mexico ranks last when it comes to education. Will a mandatory 180 days in the classroom help?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico has adopted a new rule mandating that school calendars consist of at least 180 days, with top state officials saying Thursday that the goal is to get students more learning time in the classroom and improve academic outcomes.

Public Education Secretary Arsenio Romero told reporters the change is just one of many things his agency is implementing as it works to pull New Mexico up from the bottom of national education rankings. He pointed to structured literacy programs in kindergarten and earlier grades, technical education and internship opportunities for older students and summer programs that can help keep students on track.

“We’ve been the last and the worst performing state in the union. We know that this isn’t reflective of who we are, and we’re going to do everything we can to challenge and change that,” he said. “This is about what’s doing what’s right for kids, even if it’s hard.”

Consideration of the 180-day proposal began last year, spurring much opposition from teacher unions and Republican lawmakers who voiced concerns about everything from districts losing local control to teachers having to work longer hours and more days.

Many of the complaints centered on the ability of districts — particularly those in rural areas —- to retain four-day weeks.

Romero said the feedback and the debates had over the last few months helped to make what he described as a stronger rule, noting that there's flexibility that will allow for four-day weeks as long as districts can show increases in academic performance.

Reaching that bar might be difficult for many schools given the results of last spring's standardized testing. The results showed just 38% of tested students were proficient in reading, marking a slight uptick from the previous year. Statewide math proficiency was stagnant at 24%.

The results prompted a letter from Romero to districts calling for more accountability throughout the state's education system.

New Mexico passed legislation in 2023 increasing the number of hours students needed to be in school from roughly 1,000 hours to 1,140 hours. The change meant several districts around the state had to lengthen the school day or add more days to meet the requirement. The legislation also allowed space for professional development for teachers within a normal school day.

Republican legislative leaders were among those to send letter to the state Public Education Department about their concerns over the 180-day requirement. They argued that the rule would circumvent the intention of the legislation to add instructional time and would further burden districts.

Sen. Crystal Brantley, a Republican who represents rural areas in southern New Mexico, said the adoption of the rule comes as a surprise given the pushback from school administrators, teachers and legislators on both sides of the aisle.

“My local superintendents are still combing through the details, but based on my early conversations with them, significant issues and questions remain," she told The Associated Press. “I believe those best suited to make these decisions are those closest to the students, and as such, I will continue to oppose efforts by PED to seize more control from our school boards and administrators.”

The Public Education Department said the new rule will be in effect for the school year that begins this fall.