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.
Gov. Susana Martinez’s recently announced changes to the state’s teacher evaluation system came from discussions between a panel of New Mexico educators and state Public Education Department officials. This is according to Chris Eide, the national director of state policy, advocacy and partnerships with Teach Plus. The Boston-based nonprofit, which focuses on teacher-driven education reform, launched an initiative in New Mexico last year to look at teacher evaluations and teacher preparation. Over the weekend, Martinez accepted two recommendations from the New Mexico Teach Plus task force. One allows teachers to use up to six absences without affecting the attendance portion of their state teacher evaluations.
Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed two bills and signed two more Friday afternoon. One bill Martinez vetoed dealt with the release of public databases through the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). Rep. Matthew McQueen introduced the bill after reading about problems one citizen had when requesting information from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commision. That issue was reported by NM Political Report and co-published in the Santa Fe Reporter. Currently, IPRA allows agencies to release databases but also authorizes agency officials to make the requester agree “not to use the database for any political or commercial purpose unless the purposes and use is approved in writing by the state agency that created the database.” McQueen’s bill would have struck “political” from the law.
State Sen. Carroll Leavell broke a personal streak lasting decades by voting Friday for a tax increase. The Republican from Jal, one of the most conservative parts of the state, joined all other members of the Senate Finance Committee in support of a budget for fiscal year 2018 that is balanced only because of new taxes and fees. “This is my 21st year and to my recollection it’s probably the first time” supporting a tax increase, he said after the vote. “We’ve run out of any place else to get money and if someone wants to disagree with me, they can show me how to get it.” Leavell’s comments came after the committee advanced two separate measures.
A Republican legislator on Friday began his attempt to override Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of a bill that would enable teachers to use more sick days without being penalized in their performance evaluation. Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, moved to have the vetoed bill returned to the Senate so he could seek an override early next week. Martinez is also a Republican, but Brandt said he would continue pursuing the override unless they can reach a compromise in which teachers are not penalized. He said he had initiated conversations with Martinez’s Public Education Department in hopes of starting such a discussion. Related: Martinez vetoes bill on use of sick leave impacting teachers’ evaluations
“I don’t take any joy in overriding a veto,” Brandt said.
Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed legislation Thursday that would allow teachers to use their sick leave without it affecting their evaluations. Martinez said if the bill, which sponsors dubbed the “Teachers are Human Too Act,” became law, it would lead to more teacher absences, which would create more expenses, including for substitute teachers. Martinez said this would also lead to decreased quality of education. “We need our teachers in our classrooms, and House Bill 241 would lead to more teacher absences,” Martinez wrote. Related: Education chiefs fail to appear at hearing
The Public Education Department was unable to estimate in the bill’s Fiscal Impact Report how many teacher absences there would be under the bill, and at what cost.