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SANTA FE — Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s nominee for public education secretary, Hanna Skandera, faces questions in the Legislature over whether she meets constitutional requirements for the job.
The leader of the Public Education Department must be a “qualified, experienced educator,” according to the New Mexico Constitution, but Skandera has never worked as a teacher or administrator in a public elementary or secondary school.
Skandera is subject to Senate confirmation and Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said lawmakers are trying to determine what the constitution means by “educator.”
“I don’t think we should just close our eyes to that issue,” Sanchez said in a recent interview.
When asked what he thought about the senate’s concerns, Los Alamos Public Schools Superintendent Gene Schmidt said that he would defer to the senate to confirm Skandera’s qualifications, saying that he did not have access to her portfolio.
However, Schmidt did say that he did have access to first impressions and “I will say that I had a very favorable first impression.”
“We think she’s got a great vision. She has a perspective that’s fresh and new and has ideas that can push New Mexico forward,” Schmidt said. “ … The senate is doing their constitutional duty. Due diligence is a good thing …”
The governor contends Skandera is highly qualified to serve as the state’s top educational leader.
Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said the governor selected Skandera because of her “impressive credentials and strong commitment to reform.”
Skandera, 37, worked from March 2007 to January 2009 as deputy chief of staff and senior policy adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
She was a deputy commissioner of education in the Florida Department of Education in 2005-2007. She held several jobs in the California office of the secretary for education in 2004-2005, including undersecretary for education, chief of staff and assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.
Her duties in the Florida and California jobs included policy and legislative adviser and “spokesperson to the media, public and education constituents,” according to Skandera’s resume, which was released by the governor’s office.
Skandera also was a lecturer and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s school of public policy in 2002 and 2003. She earned a master’s degree in public policy from the university in 2000.
She worked at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University, from May 2000 to December 2003 as a public affairs and research fellow. She worked for Catholic Charities in California in 1993-1998 on an abstinence-only sex education programs for students in grades 6-12.
“In the past, the Legislature has made a distinction between an educator and teacher, with educators being inclusive of administrators and teachers. In this case, Skandera’s experience addresses both as she has played a direct role in crafting education policy as well as in classroom instruction,” Darnell said in a statement.
Skandera said she views the constitution’s educator requirement to mean “you been able to administrate and lead in the education field and established yourself as someone who understands policy and implementation. And I believe that I have done that consistently.”
However, an educational union leader said Skandera doesn’t meet the requirements for education secretary because she lacks a background in public schools.
“I know she has worked for departments of education but she’s worked for departments as a public policy person. l think that is problematic for us as teachers who definitely want a secretary of education to understand what goes on every day in the classroom,” said Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation.
The Public Education Department, under the control of the governor with a cabinet-level secretary, was established in 2003. The provision spelling out the secretary’s qualifications was part of that change, which voters adopted as a constitutional amendment.
Veronica Garcia, a career educator who worked as a teacher and school superintendent, served as the state’s first public education secretary in Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration.