Just before dawn, as the Albuquerque sky filled the house with thin, pale blue light, 16-year-old Aurra Gardner took the small handgun out from behind the bed in her mother’s bedroom. Kerianne Gardner, Aurra’s mother, sat in the living room, typing an email, listening idly as her other daughters tied their shoes and packed their lunches. She heard what sounded like a door slam and assumed it was Aurra’s cello case falling over. She walked down the hall and tried the door of the bedroom. It was locked.
When Michelle Lujan Grisham announced after the election she was building a transition team to help gather data and create strategies for reforming the state’s public education system, it was perhaps no surprise that five of the roughly 30 members of the group represented teachers unions. That didn’t come as much of a surprise to many observers: Teachers unions have aligned themselves with Democratic Party candidates and leaders for many years, and had endorsed Lujan Grisham in the 2018 election — just as they had backed Democrat Gary King in 2014 against then-Gov. Susana Martinez. Now, as Lujan Grisham embarks on a 60-day legislative session in which the future of New Mexico’s educational system will be a central topic, the power of the unions will be a looming question. Will their power be on full display in 2019 and beyond, or are they simply moving back into the picture after eight years of often-bitter battles with the Martinez administration? Several Republican legislators say they expect the unions will have undeniable influence, particularly when it comes to pushing for higher teacher pay and changes in the state’s teacher evaluation system, which has relied heavily on student test scores to measure a teacher’s effectiveness.
A conservative group that films undercover videos of political opponents targeted a New Mexico teachers union, according to union officials. Project Veritas, funded by an array of conservative groups with ties to Charles and David Koch and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is known for guerilla-style, heavily edited videos aimed at harming political opponents. Earlier this year, the group made headlines when a woman associated with it raised false claims of an alleged sexual relationship with Roy Moore, the failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama. The woman’s attempt to set up a Washington Post reporter failed when the paper fact-checked her claims and discovered her ties to Project Veritas. Ellen Bernstein, President of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, says her union was contacted by someone associated with Project Veritas.
Near the end of his announcement for mayor last weekend, Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis took a shot at the city’s public school district, saying it needed “radical repair.”
“I believe now is the time to deconstruct this large unaccountable school district and replace it with smaller, more accountable school districts,” Lewis said at the business incubator ABQ Fat Pipe, which is located in the old Albuquerque High School building. “As your mayor, what I’ll do is lead the charge to fundamentally change education in our city.”
With more than 95,000 students in the school system, APS ranks as the 31st largest public school district in the nation—outsizing the public school systems in bigger cities like Detroit, San Francisco and Boston. Lewis is making the idea of breaking up the school district a part of his mayoral platform. To do so requires action from the state legislature. State Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, could be the lawmaker that takes on the issue this legislative session, which starts next week.
Albuquerque teachers punished for low scores earlier this year on state teacher evaluations need no longer worry—for now. A memo sent this week to principals across Albuquerque Public Schools says that “effective immediately” the district is suspending all teacher professional growth plans based on evaluations from the state’s NMTEACH program. Based on the New Mexico Public Education Department’s figures of the percentage of low scoring teachers and APS’ total amount of teachers, the pause affects more than 1,500 teachers in the state’s largest school district. APS made the decision one week after a Santa Fe District judge temporarily barred the PED from using scores from the state’s controversial teacher evaluations for school personnel decisions. A PED spokesman didn’t respond to a request to comment for this story.
Both New Mexico senators voted in favor of a No Child Left Behind replacement Wednesday, following unanimous support last week on the same bill from the state’s Congressional delegation. Democrats and teachers unions have widely praised the Every Student Succeeds Act for taking away federal oversight of accountability from standardized tests. Under No Child Left Behind, the federal government could withhold money from schools that scored low on the Adequate Yearly Progress reports, which were made from standardized test scores. The new bill, which cleared the House of Representatives last week, leaves this type of accountability measures to the states. “It gives states the decision on high stakes testing, which unfortunately in our state the governor wants,” Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein said in an interview.