January 13, 2015

Education will continue to be a hot topic for the legislature

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A demonstration sign outside the New Mexico State Capitol building.

A demonstration sign outside the New Mexico State Capitol building.

Education is a topic that comes up every legislative session in New Mexico and draws out long and often heated discussions.

This year, many of the bills that were unsuccessfully introduced by Republicans may have a chance of passing through the new House majority. In previous years, Democrats  were  opposed to Republican initiatives like student testing and third-grade retention. This session seems to be headed in the same direction.

This is the third year that Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, has introduced legislation aimed at holding students back if they are not proficient in reading by the third grade. This year, her SB 66 is a duplicate of a House bill carried by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque.

Kernan, a retired elementary school teacher, told New Mexico Political Report that she understands why some critics might be wary of a retention bill. She said she knows that retention can be harmful to students on a social level, but that she wants to see more intervention before students get to third grade. Kernan said she would like to see more intervention before third grade in order to avoid holding students back later; something she sees as more damaging.

“Some people say it really hurts them socially and it hurts their heart,” Kernan said.

She added that the legislation includes exemptions for students not fluent in English or those in special education classes.

“I just hope people keep an open mind and read the bill and look at the protections in there,” Kernan said.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said depending on the structure of the bills, he will most likely support this type of legislation. He thinks intervention is the right approach.

“You have to look at the plus and minuses of it,” Brandt said. “If you moved up to fourth grade without being able to read, you’re never going to catch up.”

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who recently moved from the House to the Senate, said she is opposed to this type of bill. She said the Public Education Department already has retention policies in place and there is little need for more.

“We already assess kids, in the beginning, in the middle, in the end, every week, every day,” Stewart said.

Kernan is hopeful that the duplicate bill in the House will pass through quickly, but admits there is no telling what will happen in the Senate committees.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Kernan said. “The third year’s a charm.”

Another topic that may end up on the House floor is student testing.

Stewart, who has long been outspoken when it comes to education, wants testing to be in the hands of teachers and not the PED. She said end of course exams should be based on the curriculum that teachers already use. According to Stewart, most of the curriculum that is being used already has associated exams that work for assessments.

“We’ve just gone overboard in requirements of end-of-course exams approved and deemed to be the ones to use by the PED,” Stewart said.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, is sponsoring a bill that would  decrease the time teachers spend preparing for and administering statewide, standardized tests. He filed HB 15 last month with the intention of limiting testing to five days in the fall and five days in the spring. He told New Mexico Political Report that he doesn’t think testing is a viable way to prepare students for life.

“We spend more time evaluating and less time teaching,”McCamley said.

Brandt, who previously served on the Rio Rancho Public School Board for six years, is no stranger to education bills. He said he’s had more success with his education bills than with others he has introduced.

One piece of legislation he wants to see passed is  SB 85 which would revoke driving privileges from habitually truant high school students. Brandt has introduced a version of this bill every year since he became a senator in 2013. He said he has cut the original legislation from more than 20 pages to nine and hopes that will help it pass this year.

Other education related legislation will most likely come from the Legislative Education Study Committee. Stewart, the vice-chair of the committee said she will sponsor some  bills that were endorsed by the group.

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