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State Sen. Howie Morales, D-28, may have been in Los Alamos to outline his plans for governor, but he also wanted to make sure the event wasn’t a typical one-way exchange.
“I want to make sure this visit is as informal as possible. Please feel free to stop me, ask questions, feel free to give some of your thoughts and experiences,” he said, adding that his appearance Monday at the Los Alamos High School’s Speech Theater will mark the fourth time he’s campaigned in Los Alamos since declaring his candidacy for the governor’s office Oct. 22.
Morales is one of five democratic candidates who have declared their intentions to win New Mexico’s top office. The others include New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, State Sen. Linda M. Lopez (D-11), Lawrence Rael, former state executive director of the Farm Service Agency and businessman Alan Webber.
Since the American Federation of Teachers event at the Speech Theater was mostly made up of educators, Morales made sure to emphasize his educational background, which included degrees in special education, and biology, as well as a master’s in bilingual/special education. He also earned a Ph.D in education from New Mexico State University. He then mentioned that went on to teach special education in the Silver City and Cobre Schools for eight years, as well as become a locally well-known and successful baseball coach.
He told the audience that what inspired him to run for public office is when he saw federal programs like “No Child Left Behind” start to chip away at the teacher/child relationship.
One of the key ingredients, he said, made his teaching kids in alternative education programs such a success was that special one-on-one relationship.
“One of the most rewarding experiences I had as an educator was my first two years teaching in an alternative school,” Morales said. “...it really taught me the potential of every student. It taught me the possibilities of what those students could become, if you just work with them, when you really personalize that educational approach.
“Unfortunately, you guys know more than anyone else, that that’s not happening right now, because we are so inundated with work that has to be done, it’s taking away from that opportunity to connect to students. That’s why I’m in this race.”
The big turning point came, however, when, as state senator in 2011, he met with Hanna Skandera when she visited the state at Gov. Susana Martinez’s invitation to discuss her plans for educational reform.
Morales said that when Skandera showed him her plan, he thought it wasn’t going to work and he told her so.
“I said to her it’s too focused on standardized assessment, and we know it didn’t work in Florida,” he said to the audience.
Apparently, his statement didn’t go over too well with the future education secretary, and she accused Morales of “failing the students of the state of New Mexico.”
“When we talk about workforce readiness, career readiness... what about life readiness? What are we doing for that,” Morales told the audience.
As for the other big public education issue, the teacher evaluation process, Morales said he thought evaluation through the people they work along side of would be the better way to go.
“I have some concerns about the people who do the evaluating have little or no idea what that teacher’s job entails,” he said.
Morales also talked jobs and economics, too. One audience member brought up the prospect of car company Tesla Motors’ possibility of building a battery plant in New Mexico. He and others wanted to know how Morales would go about successfully attracting the car company to the state, an issue that’s been in the news lately.
Morales was cautious, telling the audience that a deal like that could very well backfire, costing the state more than the deal would be worth, since he said New Mexico’s education system isn’t designed to provide the type of workers Tesla is looking for.
“Let’s say Tesla comes in with 6,500 jobs. At this time, I don’t believe we have the workforce or the streamlined approach with our universities and trade schools for New Mexicans to do those jobs,” he said. “So, what happens is that we would have to bring people from out of state to do those jobs.”
Morales went on to explain that in order to be successful in landing a company like Tesla, New Mexico needs to redesign its workforce as well as its education system to better accommodate tech-orientated companies like Tesla.
“If we strengthen our education system, streamline our higher education systems and apprenticeship programs, we will become workforce ready, strong from within. Then we won’t have to go out and chase the Teslas of the world. They are going to see what we have within our state, and they are going to want to come in.”
Audience member Kevin Eadie liked what he heard. He mostly quizzed the gubernatorial candidate over the state’s energy and economic policies.
“I think he’s very informed, very intelligent and well-rounded in his education. He’s also balanced, too,” he said. “I don’t like a party line thing; I like it when things are balanced and they make sense, such as when he talked about diversifying power. The governor is on a high-risk tightrope. She can go ahead and do things and make this a rule and go around it, but when it crashes, it’s all on you.”
Others were more blunt in their assessment.
“He has the experience at every level to take on this very shallow governor we have. He’s very well rounded,” said audience member Ellis Newman.