January 29, 2016

House passes mandatory third grade retention bill

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The recurring and controversial bill to mandate holding back third graders who can’t read at grade level passed the House of Representatives for a sixth year in a row Friday night.

kids pledgeAll Republican members voted for the bill, with just one Democrat, Rep. Dona Irwin of Deming, supporting it. The final vote was 36-27.

As it has for the previous five years it’s been introduced, passed in the House, the bill sparked a long and sometimes contentious debate. In the previous instances, it was killed in the Senate. But perhaps the routineness and familiarity of the debate trumped anything else. The policy remains one of Gov. Susana Martinez’s top priorities.

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, spoke of how the bill would likely die in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

“What we’re going to see is another bill that’s going to be used on a [political] mailer. It’s going to say something like, ‘Democrats are failing our kids,’” Martinez said. “It’s a shame that we’re pushing political buttons to see what political rewards we can reap later on.”

Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque and sponsor of the bill, took offense to when her colleagues called her measure a “mandatory flunking bill.”

“I prefer you don’t use that language,” Youngblood told Romero.

She also stressed that the four exemptions from mandatory retention her bill—students with disabilities, students who have already been held back, students proficient in other subjects and students who speak English as a second language—would mean that her measure would only apply to roughly 2,000 kids.

The discussion also sometimes included philosophical debates, with Democrats attempting to pit Republicans as against parental control and local government against state bureaucracy on this issue.

Reps. Andres Romero and Christine Trujillo, both Albuquerque Democrats, offered amendments to give parents and local school boards the ability to oppose the retention of a third grader and offer intervention.

“There are many, many factors for why a student can’t read at that age,” Trujillo said.

She criticized the governor’s Public Education Department as a “missionary attitude” for taking both local school board control and parental control away.

Both amendments failed on the same lines as the final vote.

Rep. Conrad James, R-Albuquerque, said that at some point a professional educator’s opinion of what a student needs has to override that of a parent. He compared it to listening to recommendations of a doctor assigning surgery to a patient.

“I don’t see any difference between that situation and what we’re doing here,” James said. “There has to be a stopgap.”

A few legislators, both for and against the bill, shared personal stories of their positions on this issue. Rep. Jim Harper, R-Rio Rancho, talked about how he and his wife made the “agonizing” and “heartbreaking” decision to hold their child back in third grade.

“It was the best decision my wife and I ever made together,” he said. “That child had an opportunity to slow down and learn the skills critical for his success.”

The bill next moves to the Senate, where it will be assigned to committees.