When Gov. Susana Martinez was sworn into office nearly eight years ago, she had this to say about educating children in New Mexico: “Nothing we do is more indispensable to our future well-being or will receive more attention from my administration than guaranteeing our children a quality education.”
New Mexico had received an “F” for K-12 achievement on a national education grading report. Fast forward eight years. As she winds down the final year of her second term, New Mexico earned a “D-” for K-12 achievement from Education Week’s Quality Counts report — and our overall grade actually sunk from a C to a D, dropping from 32nd to 50th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
There’s more to learn about that progress — or lack thereof — in trying to improve education in New Mexico, other than “it’s hard.” Turning around a system as large as public education is like turning an aircraft carrier. It’s going to take a lot of pushing and it won’t turn on a dime. It will take a big idea, and most likely, decades of follow through. Certainly more than the eight years governors get.
Which means any governor is going to need buy-in from the people who are running that system and who will be there when they turn in the key to the governor’s mansion.
It’s something the four candidates for governor should take heed of as they craft their visions for what’s next for children in New Mexico.
I had the privilege of speaking to all four of them about early childhood education, child wellbeing and the K-12 system in New Mexico. How we can make our children’s lives and futures better is such an important issue that all of them set time aside to talk with New Mexico In Depth. You can find the Q&As with Jeff Apodaca, Joe Cervantes, Michelle Lujan Grisham and Steve Pearce in our Educating Children section, where you can also find our continuing coverage of the topic.
Their answers provide a good sense of where they wanted to take education in New Mexico. Obviously, there are more similarities among the Democrats. Early childhood education and helping at-risk families with babies and toddlers with parenting skills and social services were high on the list of all three Democratic candidates. Pearce came at the issue from the perspective that K-12 was the top priority over adding new programs, and that making sure parents had the opportunity for good-paying jobs were the way to improve lives for children.
All thought the testing regime put in place by Martinez needed to go.
About that big idea. It is clear ensuring early childhood programs and education for all children is the strategy most educators and child advocates in the state have decided will improve our poor educational outcomes — and help combat issues as wide ranging as child abuse, substance abuse, crime prevention and workforce readiness. It will take hundreds of millions of dollars, and more importantly, smart decision-making to ensure the state is creating and supporting evidence-based programs rather than just spending money, calling it early childhood and hoping it works.
Does New Mexico have the fortitude — or even the margin of error — for such a complicated endeavor? The state spent $220 million on a spaceport and the second-guessing started before the concrete had hardened on the runway. As Pearce told me in his interview, “Once you pour the concrete, you better push it 100 percent.”
It’s also going to take a lot of force to make transformational change. Gov. Martinez leaned into her reform plan with all her might, as did her education secretary, Hanna Skandera. They didn’t get far because they never got buy-in from educators or state legislators. Every one of the candidates for governor has signaled they will begin to dismantle much of what the Martinez administration has put in place.
When our next governor takes the oath of office, he or she will need to start building the support they will need to transform education and drag New Mexico up from being one of the worst places to raise a child in the U.S. That person will also need to pass the baton onto the next governor and the next, until today’s newborn New Mexican is walking across the stage to pick up her degree or starting his first day on the job.
Sylvia Ulloa covers child wellbeing and education for New Mexico In Depth. You may contact her at [email protected].