ByMilan Simonich and Andrew Oxford, Santa Fe New Mexican |
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took the unusual step Wednesday of pressing for enabling legislation on a constitutional amendment that hasn’t been sent to the voters, much less been approved by them. With her 3-year-old granddaughter, Avery Stewart, on her lap, Lujan Grisham served as an expert witness for Senate Bill 671. This proposal is contingent on voters someday approving the expenditure of half a percent of the $18 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand early childhood education. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, helped get the bill through the Senate Education Committee on a party-line 6-3 vote. All the members of her party supported it, but the Republicans voted against it.
A bipartisan group of state senators on Monday balked at creating a new department to centralize early childhood education programs, stripping the proposed agency of about half of its responsibilities. Members of the Senate Education Committee voted 5-4 to amend Senate Bill 22, which would establish the centralized agency. The change would keep programs for 4-year-olds under the purview of the Public Education Department. The bill sponsor, Democratic Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque, said the amendment hurts his proposal. “It defeats the ability to ensure consistency across the early childhood education spectrum,” he said.
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.
Democratic state legislators who want to expand early childhood education by spending a portion of New Mexico’s $16 billion land grant endowment won another round Friday, bringing their proposal to a pivotal point. The Senate Education Committee voted 5-3 on party lines to advance the proposed constitutional amendment, formally called House Joint Resolution 1. Republicans on the committee opposed the measure, saying spending more of the endowment now would hurt future generations. One Republican lawmaker also pointed to the market’s recent volatility and said the fund has lost hundreds of millions of dollars during the decline. Under the proposed amendment, another 1 percent would be taken from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund.
For seven consecutive years, Gov. Susana Martinez has unsuccessfully pushed a bill to hold back thousands of third-graders who score below par on standardized reading tests. A pair of similar bills this year haven’t even received a hearing before a legislative committee. And with just five days left in the 60-day legislative session, it is unlikely that they will. Democratic Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said she didn’t know whether the panel would have time to hear House Bill 114, introduced by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque. But even if Garcia Richard’s committee takes up the measure, it almost certainly would table it.
Laura Gutierrez has been trying to get public records from Albuquerque Public Schools for more than a year. In 2014 a school law enforcement officer allegedly used force against her autistic son. APS opened an investigation and soon cleared the officer of any wrongdoing. Gutierrez wants to see all the documents from this investigation. In the fall and winter of 2015, Gutierrez filed four public records requests with APS for the district’s internal investigation of the officer, an employee of the school district.
Two state senators grappled with the definition of “ethnic studies” in schools during a legislative hearing Wednesday morning. State Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, sponsored a bill to require that schools offer courses in ethnic studies as electives. State Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, was the only member of the Senate Education Committee to vote against the bill. Brandt asked Lopez if her bill would include “all ethnicities.”
Yes, she responded, mentioning Latinos, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Native Americans as examples. “You didn’t mention mine, and I am an ethnicity,” Brandt, who is white, said.
The Senate Education Committee has unanimously tabled a bill that would have established a new endowment for early childhood programs in the state using revenues from federal mineral rights leases on public lands — assuming Congress approved a proposal by State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn to share the funding. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, asked the committee to table the measure Wednesday, saying, “It is clear to me now … that the bill suffers from problems in its construction.” In conversations with legislators, educators, Dunn and others, she said, she discovered “this entire approach has little support from the public.” Opponents of Senate Bill 182, including the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said one of its faults is that it assumes the federal government would agree to share proceeds with the state from leasing 6.6 million acres of mineral rights on private land.
Some professors, students and advocates at the state’s flagship university are warning proposed sweeping changes to the state’s higher education system could undermine academic freedom and programs like ethnic studies. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs would scale back the number of required credit hours students take in public university “general education core” classes and establish “meta-majors.”
“Meta-major” classes are defined in the bill as “lower division courses” that are set by the department and include general education courses and prerequisite courses. At a Senate Education Committee hearing last week, Kernan said her bill’s purpose is to make it easier for students who transfer to different universities to use the credits they’ve already earned from previous courses toward their college degrees. Kernan’s bill is supported by New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Barbara Damron. At last week’s hearing, Damron described meta-majors as a group of courses set under a list of broad subjects that undecided college students can choose from to create a path toward their eventual major.
The Senate Education Committee agreed to hold off on taking any action on a bill that would increase wages for New Mexico teachers. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, would increase minimum salaries for teachers by $2,000 each year for about four years. After inconsistencies in the analysis of the bill, Stewart agreed to make some changes and report back later this week. Stewart told the panel that while she would discuss the nature of the bill, she was uncomfortable with some analysis done by the Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC). She said she submitted her bill to the LESC last month and was only recently informed of a large discrepancy in how much the state would be on the hook for teacher and principal raises.