After hours of debate on the House floor, a bill that would hold back many third-graders who cannot read at grade level passed the House on a 38-30 vote, with one Democrat joining the Republicans in voting for the bill.
The bill is now headed to the Senate.
The bill has been a priority of Gov. Susana Martinez since she was first elected in 2010. The bill has passed the House before, on bipartisan votes, but has failed in the Senate and has become a more and more partisan issue as the years have passed.
Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, sponsored the legislation and said that allowing “social promotion” only served to hurt students. She listed a number of states and cities that have ended social promotion, including some surrounding states. She also mentioned prominent Democrats who support it, such as Hillary Clinton.
Democrats referred to the bill as a “third-grade flunking” bill and offered their own versions of the legislation.
Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, offered an interesting committee substitute: the 2011 version of the legislation that passed the House 62-5, with many who still sit in the chamber voting for it, including all members of the Republican leadership.
“This was not a partisan issue,” Martinez said in introducing his substitute version. “It was a Democrat’s bill combined with a Republican’s bill including a Senator’s bill, because it also had Mary Jane Garcia’s bill in it.”
The substitute failed on a party-line 37-31 vote.
Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the substitute was a good-faith effort by Democrats for compromise.
“It’s unfortunate that when presented with a good-faith opportunity, a good-faith ability to send the bill over unanimously, they said no,” Egolf told New Mexico Political Report. “And you saw every Democrat vote to support Ken Martinez’s substitute bill. It’s unfortunate the Republicans weren’t able to reach across the aisle.”
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, helped write that 2011 bill. He said that the 2015 bill was much “stronger” and had improved in the four years since.
“This bill actually calls for a screening assessment to be called in the early grades so we get and early, clear picture if Kindergarteners, first graders are on track toward reading proficiency,” Roch told New Mexico Political Report following the passage of the bill.
An earlier amendment by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, was also voted down on party lines. His amendment would have allowed teachers and principals decide if a student should be held back or allowed the parents of the student to sign a waiver that would let their child continue to the fourth grade in the language the parents speak.
McQueen said if the retention bill, as passed by the House, was implemented, “it would be a disaster for those third-grade students who were retained that should not have been.”
Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said that the majority of those who were held back would be Hispanics.
“It targets and discriminates against Hispanics and minorities, based on outcomes that happened in Florida,” Garcia said.
“House Bill 41 will most definitely instill a sense of nihilism in our students,” he said, saying it would destroy hope for students who were held back.
Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, cited a number of studies from the 1970s through 2014 that showed students who repeated a grade in elementary school were more likely to drop out of high school.
Democrats said that parents were not involved in the process.
Youngblood said, “Parents are brought to the table immediately” and came just short of calling Democrats liars for saying parents were not involved. She said parents were informed throughout the student’s educational career, starting in Kindergarten.
She also said that, “The notion that parents are not involved in this process is just false.”
The Senate will take up the bill, and Roch seemed optimistic.
“I think they’re hearing from their constituents the same as we are that we can’t continue to push students into the middle grades and upper grades without the ability to be successful,” he said following the vote.
Egolf said that sending over a unanimous bill would have been a stronger signal to the Senate.
“[It] would show the Senate, show the state that the legislature can work together and pass bills to be able to get kids reading,” Egolf said.
Two Democrats were excused and were not present for the debate or for the vote, Reps. James Madalena of Jemez Pueblo and Lucky Varela of Santa Fe. Rep. Dona Irwin, D-Deming, was the lone Democrat to vote for the bill.