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Suit filed to stop teacher evaluation

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

A cadre of state legislators, teachers unions and an individual teacher have filed a legal petition against the state Public Education Department, seeking to halt the state’s new teacher evaluation system.

The petition, filed Friday in 2nd Judicial District Court, claims that some elements of the administrative rule establishing the evaluations conflict with state law and are therefore illegal.

A PED spokesman said the filing was “terribly unfortunate.”

“This lawsuit rehashes the same tired arguments the Supreme Court rejected late last year,” spokesman Larry Behrens wrote in an email. “We will fight yet another tactic to delay because we understand over 300,000 New Mexico students deserve better.”

Last year, the state and Albuquerque chapters of the American Federation of Teachers filed a petition with the state Supreme Court, asking the court to strike down the system on separation-of-powers grounds. Education chief Hanna Skandera launched the system this school year under an administrative rule after legislators twice rejected the plan.

The Supreme Court denied their petition without explanation.

Shane Youtz, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the new petition is more narrow and is in a different venue.

He said there are two key ways the teacher evaluation rules conflict with state law. The first is that state law requires teacher evaluations to be “uniform statewide.”

The petition contends the PED system is not uniform, because the administrative rule allows state charter schools, but not traditional school districts, to apply for a waiver from the system. That distinction is couched in the rule’s definition of a school district.

Last month,, Behrens said in an email that New Mexico’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires all public schools to use the new teacher evaluation system. He said Wednesday that PED has not received any waiver requests from charters.

Youtz said the other part of the rule that appears to conflict with state law is the portion that allows personnel other than school principals and assistant principals to perform classroom observations. State law requires that “the school principal shall observe each teacher’s classroom practice.”

Stephanie Ly, the president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico chapter, said it’s important to have principals do classroom evaluations so teachers can get meaningful feedback from their supervisors.

“Our members are not afraid of accountability, and what an evaluation is supposed to be, it’s supposed to be your principal coming into your classroom and saying, ‘You know what, you did a great job there, but in this area, what if you did this differently?’ ” she said.

The plaintiffs in the case are AFT New Mexico, Albuquerque teachers union president Ellen Bernstein, Los Alamos teacher Ryan Ross, Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque.

Youtz said the state legislators joined the suit because their constitutional role is to pass laws, and the teacher evaluation regulations conflict with the laws they have passed.

“The power of the Legislature is the power to make the law, the power of the executive is to enforce the law,” Youtz said. “They (administration officials) cannot adopt regulations that explicitly violate the law, and in so doing they go beyond the scope of their constitutional powers.”

Williams Stapleton said she feels the use of an administrative rule to overhaul teacher evaluations was an “end run” around the legislative process.

“There’s a law in place already, and that law is not off of the books,” she said. “The process has always been that you go through the New Mexico Legislature, and currently as far as I am aware, the PED does not make the law.”

The petition requests a writ of mandamus, which Youtz said essentially means it is asking the court to declare the actions of a state official illegal. In this case, the official is Skandera. Skandera, the PED and the state of New Mexico are named as defendants.

The petition requests that the court direct Skandera to cease and desist from implementing the new evaluation system and to return to the teacher evaluation system codified in law.

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