Loretta Hall

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      6/17/19                          
Climbing the summer slide
By Loretta Hall
            Playground slides are designed for sliding down, but children inevitably try to climb up them. Students’ reading and math skills typically slide during the summer months, but there are ways to reverse that too.
            Research on the “summer slide” is a mixed bag, with different studies yielding different results. But there is strong evidence that learning at least slows during the summer and perhaps some of the learning gained in the previous school year is actually lost. Interestingly, the pattern seems to be the same for all students, regardless of their families’ economic status.
            This year, the state Public Education Department is offering an expanded opportunity to combat the summer slide. The K-5 Plus program provides funding for eligible elementary schools to offer 25 days of summertime instruction for students who choose to participate. This is an extension of the previous K-3 Plus program.
            Optional summer instruction periods seem promising as a way of slowing or preventing the slowing down or backsliding that is typical of the three-month gap in the school year. A study by the RAND Corporation released in 2016 found that programs like K-5 Plus are valuable. After the second summer of attending at least 20 days of a voluntary summer program, students’ improvement in both reading and math was 20-25 percent more than normally expected.
            Participation in several weeks of optional summer school programs appears to benefit both low- and high-achieving students. Researchers have also found that voluntary programs produced better results than tutoring or mandatory summer school attendance.
            The K-5 Plus program is an important opportunity for New Mexico elementary school students. Unfortunately, the eligibility requirements and short time period available for organizing the programs and applying for funding have made implementing the program difficult for this year.
            What if your school doesn’t offer the program? There’s always the basic do-it-yourself model.
            It doesn’t have to cost anything or even take much of parents’ time to implement it. A trip to the local library once a week or so can keep youngsters’ reading skills from declining. The library may offer free programs for kids to participate in. Taking time to browse the shelves can let children discover the variety of books they can choose from. Dinnertime conversation that includes asking them to tell about what they read that day helps build comprehension skills and verbal expression.
            What about math skills? Encouraging youngsters to work with numbers in everyday situations not only keeps those skills fresh but makes math more relevant and interesting. Notice all the numbers in your daily environment. While grocery shopping, ask children to help figure out the cost per ounce of different brands of the same product. Talk about gasoline mileage and compare your car’s mileage on a trip to normal driving around town. Discuss what all those baseball stats mean. Look for newspaper articles that contain numbers and talk with children about why they are useful and how to calculate them. Play board games that involve calculating scores, money management, and logic.
            There’s a place for electronic devices, too, within limits. Kids can play educational games on computers, tablets, and smart phones. It’s easy to find information about anything on the internet, but parents should help children learn to evaluate the credibility of a website.
            Using the internet is easy, but it may not be as productive as lower-tech options. Several studies suggest retention and comprehension are better when reading on paper than on a computer or another electronic device.
            Maybe by this time next year, more students will have the opportunity to reinforce and enhance their educations with K-5 Plus in more schools. In the meantime, parents can help keep their kids’ minds active and their skills up.

 ​© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES               10/10/16
PAC-ing the election
By Loretta Hall
            There’s little comfort in knowing that it’s not new. Money has been part of American politics from the beginning. How it’s used just changes over time.
            When George Washington was running for the colonial Virginia Legislature in 1758, he reportedly spent his entire campaign budget on liquor served to voters. His win validated the effectiveness of the strategy, which his opponent had used to beat him in the previous election.
            Another time-honored approach is simply paying someone to vote a particular way. That isn’t always reliable, though. Charles Russell recently told a Washington Post reporter that he accepted a financial offer to vote for a certain person in a 2010 Jackson, Kentucky, primary election. When he got in the voting booth, he realized that candidate wasn’t running in his district. Nonetheless, he came out and said he had cast the desired vote. He walked away $45 richer.
            Neither of those strategies is legal today; nor is voting in the name of a deceased person, which sometimes happens. But one modern version of buying elections is legal, and it’s used at both the national and state levels. It involves shuffling money around through a series of political action committees (PACs).
            Sandra Fish, a data journalist with the online news site New Mexico In Depth, is investigating how this practice plays out right here in New Mexico. She found that individual state legislators control 30 PACs. These are separate from the legislators’ re-election campaign funds, so after a supporter (individual or organization) has donated the maximum amount legally allowed to a campaign fund, that supporter can contribute even more to the PAC controlled by that incumbent. Often, incumbents in safe seats will use their PACs’ funds to support the campaigns of candidates in other districts.
            PACs donate to other PACs, which then donate to still other PACs or give directly to specific campaigns or spend their money for advertising that supports a candidate. Ultimately, it becomes difficult or impossible to figure out where the money came from. Is it from New Mexico donors or outside influencers? What special interest groups are spending big bucks to help one candidate or undermine another?
            We’re not talking small change here. Fish reported on Sept. 13 that “PACs spent nearly $1.8 million during the last two months.”
            There’s an even more troublesome wrinkle to all this. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions can legally spend unlimited amounts of money related to a campaign as long as they act independently from the candidate’s official campaign. When that decision was announced, I thought it was a good one. Why shouldn’t companies be able to help elect a candidate they favored?
             I found out the devil is in the details of something called a “super PAC.”  
          Organizations donate money to a super PAC, which buys advertisements and sends out mailers, frequently supporting a favored candidate by attacking an opponent. This is done without the knowledge or consent of the candidate. These smear ads often run right before an election, leaving little or no time for rebuttal, and the candidate the super PAC supports has no control over the slurs and innuendos.
          This isn’t how elections should be manipulated.
            Money plays too big a role in politics, especially when large donors can hide behind super PACs and play dirty. Personal attacks (which are often untrue or exaggerated) should not replace civil debates about candidates’ ideas and proposals. Anonymous, third-party insinuations and distortions of positions should not be allowed. Protections against libel and slander should not be waived in political campaigns.
            Candidates should control their own campaigns and act like respectable adults. Voters should thoughtfully read and listen to details of candidates’ proposals, not just swallow sound bites and billboard slogans. Elections are important, and all of us should take our responsibilities seriously.
Freelance writer Loretta Hall was named Communicator of Achievement by the National Federation of Press Women.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        7/4/16
State doesn’t take its own advice to buy local
By Loretta Hall
            In a recent column, I encouraged New Mexicans to spend their summer vacations near home, enjoying the wonderful sites and events our own state has to offer. It’s an inexpensive way to travel, and it helps local economies by keeping New Mexico money in New Mexico.
            With this idea in mind, I was both amused and distressed to read two recent news reports that appeared together. One headline read, “Tourism Dept. Creates NM True Fest for Labor Day.” The state Tourism Department is organizing an event at the state fairgrounds on Sept. 3 and 4 where local food and beverage producers, artists and artisans, entertainers, and other businesses can display their products and services. Tourism Secretary Rebecca Latham said the event “connects people to the products that are made, grown or born and raised in our own backyard.”
            Right on!
            An adjacent story, headlined “NM Tourism Website Undergoes Makeover,” tempered my enthusiasm. The same Tourism Department contracted with a Tucson-based company to overhaul the newmexico.org website. Is there no website developer in New Mexico capable of doing that?
            This struck a nerve. Our state government consistently promotes “buy local” but often doesn’t practice it.
            I started wondering how many other government contracts are awarded to out-of-state companies when in-state providers might be available. An internet search brought me to the New Mexico Sunshine Portal website. After a few false starts, I was able to find a list of purchases that identified the vendors. But without doing a separate internet search on each individual vendor, I could not tell which were in state, and which were out of state.
          The New Mexico In Depth news website listed the provisions of a bill passed in the 2015 legislative session and signed by the governor. It requires that by Jan. 1, 2016, the state’s Sunshine Portal website contain specific information about state contracts, including access to a copy of the contract document, and access to a copy of “a resident business, resident veteran business, resident contractor and resident veteran contractor certification used in the award of a contract.”
            I could not find that information on the website. If it really is there, it’s too difficult to find.
            In early 2015, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) gave New Mexico a C+ grade for online access to government spending data. In this year’s PIRG study, New Mexico moved up from 35th place to 31st, but its score remained unchanged at 77 out of 100, still a C+.
           This year, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) audited 122 state agencies and boards’ compliance with requests under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). The results were mixed. Most state agencies responded to public records requests within the 15 days required by law, and some that took longer requested extensions allowed by law. However, eight state agencies or boards did not respond at all to records requests, although three did respond after the FOG report was published. Some responses were more burdensome than necessary. For example, FOG reported that a few public bodies required the request to be resubmitted on “the state’s ‘official’ IPRA forms even though the statute does not prescribe a format for requests.”
            Our state government should not tell New Mexicans to “do as I say, not as I do.” We should all try to buy local, and we should be able to see that our public employees follow that advice, too.       
Contact Loretta Hall at loretta@authorhall.com or through AuthorHall.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        6/13/16

Enchantment and Economy in Your Own Back Yard
By Loretta Hall
            “If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard.” That’s what Dorothy said in the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz,” when she returned home after her adventures in more exotic lands.
            It’s good advice for us as summer vacation season begins.
            This year, rather than traveling outside New Mexico, consider discovering new treasures in our own home state. Do you like taking several short excursions? This fits the bill. Are you looking forward to a longer road trip? New Mexico’s expanse gives you ample opportunities.
            Here’s a sampling of special events happening during the summer:
            In June, visit Albuquerque for the Festival Flamenco International de Alburquerque. (No, it’s not a typo. Find out why there’s an extra “r” in the city’s name.) This is the 29th year the National Institute of Flamenco has sponsored this week-long event. It begins the evening of June 11 with a showcase of flamenco artists and schools from around the world, followed by a concert by Mayte Martín, a renowned musician from Barcelona. This free event will be at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. For a fee, you can attend other performances and workshops June 12-18.
            Another June option is Fort Union Days in northeastern New Mexico. This free, two-day event features guest speakers, living history encampments, cannon and musket firing demonstrations, and guided tours. Treat Dad to a Father’s Day excursion on June 18 and/or June 19.
            If you’re looking for something to do in July, visit Roswell for the annual UFO Festival, which will be held June 30 through July 3 this year. Start the month off by entering or watching the Alien Costume Contest that Saturday. While you’re in Roswell, discover the city’s other claim to space fame, the work Robert Goddard did there in the 1930s to develop liquid-fuel rockets. That technology made manned spaceflight possible. The Roswell Museum and Art Gallery has extensive exhibits about his work.
            Maybe northern New Mexico beckons you in July. Head to Los Alamos for their ScienceFest. Historical tours will be available on Thursday and Friday, July 14 and 15, with a live, Celtic music concert Friday evening. Saturday is Festival Day, with live music, entertainment, and more than sixty exhibitors with interactive, hand-on activities showcasing science, technology, engineering, and math from across New Mexico.
            For an August adventure, explore one or more of our state’s national parks and national monuments. Many of New Mexico’s National Park Service resources are free to visit all year, but the ones that normally charge admission fees will be free August 25-28 in celebration of the NPS’s 100th anniversary. Special events will be offered at some, including Bandelier National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns, and the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
            Spontaneity has its advantages, too. Special tourism trails suggest destinations and activities that don’t depend on specific dates, and New Mexico has some intriguing ones. Try one of these: Adobe Trail, Ale Trail, Bed and Breakfast Trail, Breakfast Burrito Byway, Chocolate Trail, Fiber Arts Trail, Film Trail, Ghost Town Trail, Gold Mine Trail, Green Chili Cheeseburger Trail, Space Trail, Turquoise Trail, and Wine Trail. Visit several places on your favorite trail, or pick one destination from each trail and have a variety of adventures.
            These are only a few examples of the array of events and special places that can enchant you and your family this summer. Traveling in state is a budget-friendly way to enrich your understanding and appreciation of your own “back yard.” When you pay for gas, lodging, souvenirs, and admissions here in New Mexico, it boosts our economy and benefits us all.
Contact Loretta Hall at loretta@authorhall.com or through http://AuthorHall.com