Many New Mexico children have either just started their school year or are preparing to start soon. This month students will prepare for school, new books, new teachers and their respective dirty looks. The state Public Education Department (PED) rates schools with an A-F grading system to identify which need ones need improvement—and schools with persistently low grades could experience major overhauls. That’s causing alarm among some teachers, especially in rural communities. This week the U.S. Education Department officially accepted New Mexico’s education plan, which is required under a 2015 federal law—and includes provisions that could shut down or revamp schools in remote areas where schools are scarce to begin with.
At a confirmation hearing earlier this month, Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for education secretary, responded to a question about whether she would promote “junk science” by saying she supports science teaching that “allows students to exercise critical thinking.” This seemingly innocuous statement has raised alarms among science education advocates, and buoyed the hopes of conservative Christian groups that, if confirmed, DeVos may use her bully pulpit atop the U.S. Department of Education to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools. DeVos and her family have poured millions of dollars into groups that champion intelligent design, the doctrine that the complexity of biological life can best be explained by the existence of a creator rather than by Darwinian evolution. Within this movement, “critical thinking” has become a code phrase to justify teaching of intelligent design. Candi Cushman, a policy analyst for the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, described DeVos’ nomination as a positive development for communities that want to include intelligent design in their school curricula.
The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education called on school districts around the country to include transgender students in Title IX policies in a letter sent Friday. The eight page letter outlines how school districts should address issues surrounding transgender students, including in bathroom and athletic facilities. “A school may provide separate facilities on the basis of sex, but must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity,” the letter read. “A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so.”
The letter also said that schools can provide other options for students who prefer to use a separate facility for extra privacy. Representatives from Albuquerque and Rio Rancho Public Schools did not respond to messages from NM Political Report before press time, but a spokeswoman for Las Cruces Public Schools said they have not received the letter from the federal government.
The head of troubled for-profit college watchdog, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, has stepped down, the agency said Monday in a statement. The resignation of Albert Gray, who served as ACICS’ president and chief executive officer for the past seven years, comes at a precarious time for the accreditor. Last week, a dozen state attorneys general called on the Department of Education to revoke the accreditor’s recognition. Without recognition, the hundreds of mostly for-profit colleges that the accreditor oversees could lose access to the federal student aid that makes up the majority of their revenue. Citing ProPublica’s reporting, the state attorneys general said that the actions of the agency had “ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable students whom it was charged to protect.”
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.
Standardized tests took a blow this week nationally and locally after Congress abandoned No Child Left Behind and a local judge suspended schools’ abilities to use state teacher evaluations for personnel decisions. On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Every Student Succeeds Act, which will replace the controversial George W. Bush-era federal education law if passed by the Senate and approved by President Obama. All of New Mexico’s Congressional delegation, which is usually split along party lines, voted for the bill. While the new law would still mandate schools give standardized tests to students from grades three-eight and once in high school, it restricts the federal government from measuring the results. One of the most controversial parts of No Child Left Behind was its Adequate Yearly Progress reports, which measured progress on state-mandated math and reading tests.