Ending the standoff over education reform

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By Sherry Robinson

Early in the legislative session, I got on the elevator with Hanna Skandera, whose name is usually modified by the word “embattled” and whose title, Education Secretary, has the appendage “designee.” Two little words say so much.
In the elevator, however, she was a state employee receiving the good wishes of another state employee.
“I think they’ll confirm you,” he said.
“Whether they do or not, I can still do my job,” Skandera replied with characteristic moxie.
We now know that after 10 hours of hearings, the Senate Rules Committee didn’t vote, and its chairman, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, is on the receiving end of the same kinds of critical blasts Skandera endured.
Deservedly so.
Regardless of how you feel about her education reform, Skandera deserved an up or down vote. Period. She is the governor’s choice for the job, and unless some severe character flaw has come to light, the governor deserves to have her own people in the cabinet.
That said, I don’t think it makes much difference who is Education Secretary because the administration and Republicans are so far from consensus with teachers and Democrats that reform is in jeopardy.
Time after time, during the recently ended session, an education bill before a committee would draw the enthusiastic endorsement of teachers in the room only to have a representative of the Public Education Department rain on their picnic. Many a bill was designed to circumvent the department or dilute its power. Even when the two sides agreed on a program, they disagreed about how to fund it.
We’ve been here before. In the 1990s the disagreements were as profound, the debates as emotional. Lawmakers in 1999 created the nonpartisan, 64-member Education Initiatives and Accountability Task Force, made up of legislators, superintendents, teachers, parents, business people, citizens and Education Department staff. They did some very good work, and New Mexico First and Think New Mexico, nonpartisan good-government groups, also contributed.
Their product was the 2003 package of reform bills and constitutional changes, which have since gotten a bad rap that isn’t entirely deserved.
Remember, one major issue was teacher salaries so low we were losing our best teachers and actually had a teacher shortage. The two main goals of the 2003 reform were attracting and retaining good teachers and holding teachers and schools accountable. The resulting three-tiered licensure system with pay increase won national recognition from Quality Counts and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The measure also created the Secretary of Education who reported to the governor, an important element in accountability.
Ten years ago, poverty was the single biggest factor in student achievement. It still is. Reformers responded with the first early childhood education programs, school clinics, and kids’ breakfast programs. Those helped, but test scores and graduation rates are still disappointing.
Remember also that a year before the state’s reform, we got the federal No Child Left Behind, which came with its own (often irrational) demands and insufficient funding. Both reforms relied on standardized testing. Accountability morphed into paperwork. For educators, both have grown from irritants to running sores.
Instead of looking at what worked and didn’t work, instead of listening to teachers, the administration has for two years and three legislative sessions tried to force a template from Florida onto a structure that evolved in New Mexico. It may be a good plan, but everybody has to buy in.
Unless and until the governor and the legislature find a way to talk, we won’t see movement on education reform, and Hanna Skandera, as the bearer of unwanted messages, will earn that modifier, “embattled.”