March 21, 2013 8:44 pm

New Mexico Education Secretary Left in Limbo and Strong Policy on the Governor’s Desk

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By Elaine Romero

New Mexico has alternating 30-day and 60-day legislative sessions. The 2013 60-day included 33% new senators and 48% new representatives.  Never before had a governor played such a prominent role in local races as GOP Governor Suzanna Martinez during the 2012 elections of senators and representatives.  The session began on January 15 with a 42-member Senate (25D-17R) and a 70-member House (38D-32R).  The session ended in total disarray as the Governor rammed a complicated tax package of corporate tax breaks through in the final 5 seconds of the House session.  This is a strategy that we are witnessing across the country as was recently documented by our NPE colleague, Larry Lee in Alabama.

The Senate Education Committee consisted of 6 out of 9 freshmen senators.  The chair, Senator John Sapien (D), his first year as chair, was in his 2nd term and the ranking member Senator Gay Kernan (R) in her 4th term.  The House Education Committee consisted of 5 out of 13 freshman representatives.  The chair, Representative Mimi Stewart (D), her first year as chair, was in her 10th term and the ranking member was Majority Floor Leader, Rick Miera (D) in his 12th term.  This was the third legislative session of Republican Governor Martinez and her appointed Secretary of Education, Secretary-Designee Hanna Skandera.  In many ways New Mexico resembled our national education policy debates, with issues crossing party lines, and many legislators simply confused regarding education.  As one new senator mentioned “I need to get together with you during the interim and try to understand what is really going on in education”.  New Mexico also resembled our national education policy debates with the corporatization of education front and center.

Three days and over 10 hours of confirmation hearing for Skandera reached no conclusion.  So many issues were opened up including misuse of public funds and resources, conflicts of interest, ethical lapses, procurement code violations, dismissiveness of minority education, including state laws and communication problems including refusing to meet with stakeholders, with a 186 addendum of supporting documents provided by investigator and parent activist, Michael Corwin.  The Senate Rules Committee ran out of time to complete the hearing with only 4 of the 10 Senators able to question Skandera and many important issues still needing to be addressed.  At the center of her confirmation is whether she is qualified under the New Mexico constitution which calls for a “qualified experienced educator”.  Skandera’s experience includes work in Jeb Bush’s state department of education in Florida, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; however, she has never worked in a classroom or a public school.  She is one of 8 members of Chiefs for Change.  Also, Skandera is a governing board member of the PARCC assessments.  New Mexico educators, who pleaded with members of Senate Rules Committee not to confirm Skandera, far outnumbered primarily business community members, who spoke in Skandera’s favor.  Word is that the hearing will continue over the interim although a Senate confirmation vote cannot happen until the full Senate is together.

Amidst this contentious issue, which deeply divided New Mexicans, were 145 education bills, resolutions, and memorials moving through committees and the $2.5 billion education budget within the $5.88 billion state budget.  Key education legislation that passed the House and Senate chambers and is waiting to be signed or vetoed includes:

  • State School Grades Council, Senator Howie Morales (D), SB587 which would repeal the A-F Grading Act, initiate a two-year school grading system not so heavily reliant on standardized tests, and creates a council to create a fair school grading formula.
  • Define Virtual Charter School & Moratorium, Senator Gay Kernan (R), SB338, which initiates an emergency moratorium on virtual online charter schools for two years.
  • School Management Contracts & Charter Boards, Representative Mimi Stewart (D), HB460 which ensures local control of charter schools and prevents education funding from going to out-of-state private entities for school management or administration of New Mexico education programs.
  • Public Education Commission as Independent, Representative Mary Helen Garcia (D), HB392, creating more oversight of the Education Secretary particularly regarding charter school decisions.
  • Evidence of Teacher Competency, Representative Sheryl Stapleton (D), HB481 which will expand and codify the required evidence of teacher competency for advancement in New Mexico’s three-tier teacher licensure system.
  • Teacher & Principal Evaluation System Council, Senator Howie Morales (D), SB588 which requires the Public Education Department to convene a 31-member council to develop a teacher and principal evaluation system in accordance with the highly objective uniform statewide standards and other evaluation criteria described in the bill.
  • Teacher Language Proficiency & Council, Representative Rick Miera (D), HB541 which establishes a statewide seal of bilingual proficiency as a capstone on a high school diploma and reestablishes a Bilingual Education Advisory Council that was disbanded when Skandera arrived.

Key education legislation that ended in committees includes:

  • Academic Success Through Remediation Act, Senator Gay Kernan (R), SB260, commonly known across the country as the End Social Promotion or Third Grade Retention bill.  This would have taken away the parents right to choose not to have their child retained at 3rd grade based on standardized assessment results.  Tabled in Senate Education Committee and the duplicate bill, HB257, Representative Mary Helen Garcia (D), was tabled in House Education Committee.
  • School Employee Concealed Handguns, Senator Sue Beffort (R) SB230, which would have allowed up to three handguns on school campuses.  Tabled in Senate Education Committee.
  • School Truancy Identification & Penalties, Senator Craig Brandt (R) SB393, which would have suspended or denied driving privileges from student in grades 8-12 with 10 or more absences.  Tabled in Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • Teacher Licensing and Performance Ratings, Senator Sander Rue (R) SB316, which would have codified Skandera’s evaluation system tied to standardized tests.  Skandera has initiated this system through changing rules.  Tabled in Senate Education Committee and the duplicate bill, HB167 Rep Jimmie Hall (R), was tabled in the House Education Committee.
  • Merit pay, a $3 million pilot program to incentivize teachers based on standardized tests, put into the budget by the Governor and pulled out by the Senate who reallocated $2 million to teachers who transfer to D and F struggling schools.
  • Land Grant Balance and Fund Distribution, Senator Michael Sanchez (D) SJR3, which would have allowed voters to decide whether 1% of a $12 billion land grant fund should be invested in early childhood education.  This bill died in Senate Finance Committee.
  • Limit School Class Sizes, Constitutional Amendment, Senator Tim Keller (D) SJR2, which would have allowed voters to decide whether to reduce class sizes across the state.  This bill died in Senate Finance Committee.
  • Reading Proficiency Act, Senator John Sapien (D) SB640, which would provide reporting requirements, professional development in teaching reading, and common formative assessments.  This bill died in Senate Finance Committee.
  • School Intervention and Remediation Practices, Senator Linda Lopez (D), SB474 which would have provided reading and math intervention teachers from Kindergarten through 8th grade to work with students in small group intensified instruction.  This bill died in Senate Finance Committee.
  • Study the Cost of Assessments and Effectiveness, Senator Linda Lopez (D), SB580 which would have provided funding the Center for Education Policy and Research to study the cost, in dollars and instruction time, and equally important the effectiveness of standardized tests in improving education and reducing the achievement gap in New Mexico.  This bill died in Senate Finance Committee.

Michael Fullan’s theory on organization change asserts that in order for there to be deep, systemic, lasting change, first there needs to be chaos.  Chaos, as in the scientific definition – not everything “jumbled up” but alignments occurring.  We have reached chaos.  There are strong alliances forming all around New Mexico that cross party lines, alliances that are deeply concerned and realize the treasure we have in our state.  New Mexico education includes the Indian Education Act (2003), Bilingual Multicultural Education Act (2004), and Hispanic Education Act (2010).  We, and our children, are unique and standardized tests can never measure this.  Our hope is that one by one, our legislators will continue to learn about “what is really going on in education”.

Elaine Romero has been watching education in New Mexico for three generations She has been an educator in New Mexico rural, urban, public, private, parochial, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and charter school settings. She is working on her dissertation in education leadership examining the relationship between the Hispanic Achievement Gap in the U.S./Mexico border states and social equity factors including retention, suspension, expulsion, and enrollment in AP/Gifted classes.  Romero is currently employed as an instructional coach and during the legislative session as an education policy analyst.