By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Voters would be asked whether they want to resurrect a statewide board to oversee New Mexico’s beleaguered public schools under a proposed constitutional amendment the Senate Rules Committee endorsed Monday.
Senate Joint Resolution 1 would eliminate the Cabinet position of public education secretary, and a 15-member board of education — including 10 elected members and five members appointed by the governor — would hire a state superintendent, who would direct the policies of the Public Education Department.
“We need stability in education, and that’s the bottom line on this” proposal, the lead sponsor, Republican Sen. Steven Neville of Aztec, told the Rules Committee. He cited the turnover of six public education secretaries since 2003, including three under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The proposed constitutional amendment would go before voters in 2024 if the Legislature passes SJR 1. If it is approved by voters, the election of new school board members would take place in 2026.
Neville’s original proposal called for 10 elected board members. A substitute version adds five appointed members, for a total of 15.
“We considered a different [substitute] where we would have seven [members] appointed by the governor, so this is kind of a compromise between the two concepts,” he said in an interview.
New Mexico used to have an elected state board of education. In 2003, voters approved a constitutional amendment establishing the Public Education Department, and responsibilities shifted from a superintendent of public instruction selected by the board to a secretary selected by the governor, according to a fiscal impact report.
Before voters approved that constitutional amendment, three superintendents served over the course of four to five decades, said Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.
“We would be going back to those times where we had more consistency in education instead of the differing policies that happen between administrations,” she said.
Neville echoed the sentiment.
“We need to have a superintendent and a system in place that allows for something longer than a governor’s term, frankly,” he said. “It’s not faulting any single governor or whatever, but we change governors every four to eight years, no matter what, and if we change secretaries that often … then we would be looking at changing the whole system every eight years at a minimum. That’s just not a good way to run something as important as our schools.”
Stewart said the push to bring back a board of education has been proposed in the past.
But it hasn’t gained traction.
The latest proposal cleared the committee 6-1. Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, cast the lone dissenting vote.
“It’s a political question,” Stewart said about the proposed constitutional amendment. “It’s a philosophical suggestion that we go back to more stability than what we have now.”
Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Superintendents’ Association and the New Mexico Coalition of Education Leaders, spoke in favor of the proposal, arguing it would take the state back to a system that works better.
“We are concerned about stability,” he said.
Rounds noted a new board wouldn’t take office until after the end of Lujan Grisham’s second term.
“When it changes, it changes with a new administration, which allows us to finish our current trajectory under the current process and start fresh with a new change in governor,” he said.
A teachers union official agreed the state needs a more stable education system, but in an interview Monday she said a return to the one in place 20 years ago isn’t the right solution.
Mary Parr Sanchez, president of the National Education Association of New Mexico, said NEA supported the switch from a board and superintendent to a Cabinet secretary of education two decades ago because board members at the time often were gridlocked by lack of consensus and slow to change education policy.
Since then, she said, the education system has been subjected to upheaval with each change in the executive branch, generating “whiplash” in policy changes and leading to instability.
“People are just frustrated because there is a revolving door — as most people are aware of — of education folks, from the top position of the [department] secretary to the deputy secretary to the superintendents to the school principals to assistant principals to classroom teachers to school secretaries, on down the line. That does not make a stable system for our kids,” Parr Sanchez said.
She said she would rather see the department streamlined and its scope limited to essential statewide duties, with bolstered staffing at the top.
“I don’t know that the whole system has to change again, but something does need to change,” she said.
Amanda Aragon, executive director of the education advocacy organization New Mexico Kids CAN, also said the state’s public education system needs improvements, but she believes the state should focus on improving instruction and, therefore, educational outcomes, rather than restructuring the Public Education Department.
“There are 49 states ranked ahead of New Mexico, all with varied governance structures and all with education results far exceeding our own,” she wrote in an email. “New Mexico’s problem is not governance; it’s instruction. That’s where we should be putting our effort, improving instruction in New Mexico classrooms.”
Lobbyist J.D. Bullington, speaking on behalf of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said the business group was among the leading proponents of the push under former Gov. Bill Richardson to move away from an elected state school board and shift the accountability to the governor.
“We do feel that that policy is sound,” he said. “Basically, the reason we moved away from an elected body was that it was perceived to just be too political in a very similar manner as the Public Regulation Commission, and we’ve now moved over to an appointed arrangement with that organization.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.