Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday finally hired her secretary of public education, and both said they aren’t afraid of the challenges ahead. “I’m feeling not so much fear but excitement,” said Karen Trujillo, a longtime educator from Las Cruces, who will lead the department. In choosing Trujillo for the $128,000-a-year job, Lujan Grisham ended weeks of speculation about who would overhaul a public education system often ranked as one of the worst in the country. The governor said Trujillo leads an “all-star team of education” professionals. Together, they hired four New Mexico educators as deputy secretaries and a special adviser from California whose background is in education and sociology.
State Rep. Bobby Gonzales shook his head from side to side after listening to all the suggestions about how to meet a judge’s order to provide more resources to New Mexico children who, in the court’s view, are not receiving a good public education. “About 15 different ideas,” the Democrat from Taos said following a hearing on the topic last week in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “Maybe we need to break it all down. Maybe we can’t do it all in one year.” But the state doesn’t have a year, or even half a year, to comply with a mandate handed down in June by state District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe.
A bell on a desk greeted visitors to the lieutenant governor’s office during Howie Morales’ first couple weeks on the job. Ring for service, a sign said. Not particularly glamorous, it seemed to sum up the office of lieutenant governor, which comes with few official duties and even fewer prospects for higher office. But Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in her early days in office has handed Morales a more expansive profile than many of his predecessors. She asked the former state senator, teacher and high school baseball coach to oversee the Public Education Department until she names a cabinet secretary.
In the coming days, governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham will take the first major step to fulfill her sweeping campaign promises on education – appointing a secretary to lead New Mexico’s troubled Public Education Department. Her choice will speak volumes – not only about her approach to education but also about her commitment to reform in a state that is primed for change. With a Democratic majority in both chambers of the Legislature, the governor-elect is in a position to address what many regard as New Mexico’s gravest problem: the fact that it sits at rock bottom in national rankings of student achievement. The state is under court order to fix a school funding system that was struck down as unconstitutional for its failure to provide adequate resources for at-risk students. So the choice of the new secretary will speak worlds about the degree to which Lujan Grisham intends to follow through on her pledge to “build a Pre-K-through-grade-12 education system that works for every single student and family.”
The state’s assistant secretary for Native American education is claiming she was unfairly forced out of the New Mexico Public Education Department earlier this month. In a two-page letter sent this week to the state’s tribal elders and obtained by New Mexico In Depth, Latifah Phillips said she “was approached with a termination letter with no explanation or any known documented reasoning, and then presented with the opportunity to resign.” (To read the full text of Phillips’ letter, click here.)
Phillips chose to be fired. She described her decision as “a small act of protest to the unfairness of this action.”
A spokeswoman for the Public Education Department did not respond to requests for comment on Phillips’ firing. Attempts to speak to Phillips about her letter were unsuccessful, too. The department’s website still lists Phillips as the assistant secretary for Native American education.
Perceived political interference in the classroom made headlines this year, prompting harsh public reaction. In March, the Santa Fe Reporter’s Matt Grubs reported the head of the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) ignored a unanimous recommendation by a panel of math and science experts to implement the Next Generation Science Standards for four years. See all of our year-end stories
As Grubs wrote:
The sensitive parts of the standards are a tiny but politically charged sliver: human-caused climate change and the theory of evolution. Those have been the sticking points for NGSS adoption in other states that, like New Mexico, lean heavily on revenues from extractive industries. And they were the only academic topics raised by senators and representatives who questioned the new standards this spring in the Capitol.
Hundreds of people turned out in Santa Fe on Monday to oppose the state’s plans to enact science standards that left out facts on climate change and evolution. Now, the head of the Public Education Department (PED) says he has reconsidered those controversial changes. Related: Overflow crowd opposes state’s proposed science standards
Under PED’s original proposal, New Mexico would implement Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which have been developed and recommended by scientists and educators. But the department planned to adopt those standards with some key changes, including to lessons on climate change, evolution and the Earth’s geological age. Public Education Department (PED) acting Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski didn’t attend that hearing, during which not one person gave public comment in support of the altered standards.
The state’s largest school district criticized new proposed science standards by the Public Education Department. The Albuquerque Public School board voted 5-1 to send a letter disapproving of the changes, which included removing specific references to increasing global temperatures and the Earth’s age, to the state Public Education Department. At issue are the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). So far, 18 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the 2013 standards. PED proposed adopting most of the standards—but with some key changes.
The federal government is investigating alleged discrimination by Albuquerque Public Schools against a student with a disability. The claim involves Michael Bruening, a 16-year-old autistic student who last saw an APS classroom in May 2015, according to his mother, Laura Gutierrez. The school district placed Bruening on homebound instruction, or education at home, but according to Gutierrez hasn’t done enough to support his educational development. Gutierrez, who said she does the bulk of instructing her son now, estimates he’s only attained education levels around the 6th or 7th grade. “I can’t teach him without him blowing up,” she said in a recent interview.
As reporters, we have a lot of questions about the state of education here in New Mexico. Most people have strong opinions, and sometimes fiery debates can obscure the deeper issue of why New Mexico’s students aren’t faring as well as they should. Last week we published stories about education in New Mexico leading up to the start of the school year. We wanted to cut through the rhetoric and understand where schools and students are succeeding and where more work is needed. Unfortunately, those stories about education were missing one significant voice—the state’s Public Education Department (PED).