A visitor heading down NM-128 to Jal would be forgiven for believing there were more people driving pickups and equipment trucks on the congested state highway than living in the small oil patch town of just over 2,100 people. Jal is an old ranching community — JAL was the brand of the John A. Lynch herd, brought to the area by settlers in the early 1800s — but today, oil is its economic engine. And that engine is humming. New Mexico’s most recent oil and gas boom has filled Heaven in a Cup, a retro burgers-and-shake shack off Main Street, with hungry oil field workers. Encampments of RVs and campers have sprung up around town and the economic resurgence has helped refuel the tiny town that sits just across the border from Texas.
A senior Democratic lawmaker says Christopher Ruszkowski, secretary-designate of the state Public Education Department, has not consented to a background check, preventing the Senate from holding his confirmation hearing. “We require all teachers and administrators and others in the [education] field who deal with children in our public schools to be cleared, and we are still unable to do that with Mr. Ruszkowski,” Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said Monday in a statement. “He is operating as Cabinet secretary without authority to do so.” Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, appointed Ruszkowski last summer. But Lopez said the Martinez administration did not send formal notice to the Senate, which the state constitution requires within 30 days of appointment.
Hundreds of New Mexicans waited in Santa Fe outside the Jerry Apodaca Building on Monday morning. They were there to share their thoughts about the statewide science standards proposed by the Public Education Department’s (PED) acting Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski. Update: State backs off controversial science standards
Under the proposal, New Mexico would join about 20 other states around the country and implement Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which have been developed and recommended by scientists and educators. But New Mexico plans to adopt those standards with some key changes involving lessons on climate change, evolution and the Earth’s geological age. People started arriving an hour-and-a-half before the start of the 9:00 a.m. hearing, and others didn’t leave until almost 2:00 p.m. Some New Mexicans stood in line for more than three hours, waiting for their names to be called so they could enter the building, stand before public officials in a small auditorium and speak for three minutes each.
New Mexico is one of the worst states for teachers. That comes from WalletHub, which ranked each state as well as the District of Columbia. New Mexico ranked 44th. New Mexico ranked 50th, out of 51, when it came to drop out rate and lowest reading test scores and 49th in lowest math scores. The study also revealed that 84 percent of the state’s teachers have inadequate pensions.
Before leading our Unions, we were elementary school teachers in New Mexico. We assigned grades— lots of grades. We made sure students, principals, and parents knew scoring was fair and transparent, and used the information to accurately discuss each child’s progress. Stephanie Ly is the president of American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and Ellen Bernstein is the president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation. Grading is a very serious responsibility.
As reporters, we have a lot of questions about the state of education here in New Mexico. Most people have strong opinions, and sometimes fiery debates can obscure the deeper issue of why New Mexico’s students aren’t faring as well as they should. Last week we published stories about education in New Mexico leading up to the start of the school year. We wanted to cut through the rhetoric and understand where schools and students are succeeding and where more work is needed. Unfortunately, those stories about education were missing one significant voice—the state’s Public Education Department (PED).
Many New Mexico children have either just started their school year or are preparing to start soon. This month students will prepare for school, new books, new teachers and their respective dirty looks. The state Public Education Department (PED) rates schools with an A-F grading system to identify which need ones need improvement—and schools with persistently low grades could experience major overhauls. That’s causing alarm among some teachers, especially in rural communities. This week the U.S. Education Department officially accepted New Mexico’s education plan, which is required under a 2015 federal law—and includes provisions that could shut down or revamp schools in remote areas where schools are scarce to begin with.
Giving New Mexico’s students better opportunities to understand science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and preparing them to lead the way in STEM-related careers, from physics and hydrology to video game design and civil engineering—will require real change in classrooms, beginning in the earliest grades. But in the last few years, Gov. Susana Martinez has been sending mixed messages. In 2015, Martinez announced that the state would bump spending on STEM programs by $2.4 million, or 20 percent. That money would go toward hiring more STEM teachers and providing a $5,000 stipend for math and science teachers in rural or underserved areas. At the time, Martinez said that the “future of the state’s economy depends on having an educated workforce that can meet the needs of employers in the years to come.”
But earlier this year, Martinez vetoed a bill that would have required the state’s teachers to follow the Next Generation Science Standards.
New Mexico’s Secretary of Education will step down from her position later this month. That’s the report from the Albuquerque Journal Thursday morning, which spoke to Skandera. Skandera told the newspaper that she will leave her post on June 20, after more than six years on the job. Skandera has been the only head of the Public Education Department under Susana Martinez. In that time, Skandera has been a controversial figure, with teachers unions and Democrats voicing sharp criticisms of her priorities.
A teacher from a rural New Mexico school district is suing the state over its policy on teacher absences. The teacher says the Public Education Department’s policy of punishing teachers on evaluations after their third absence should be changed. PED has since amended that punishment to six school absences per school year. PED Secretary Hanna Skandera responded to the lawsuit with a very short prepared statement. “We received the lawsuit,” she said.