SANTA FE – Education policy was at the center of debate Saturday at the Roundhouse, where a House committee headed off Gov. Susana Martinez’s effort to end “social promotion” of third-graders who struggle to read while hundreds of teachers rallied against her public school initiatives.
The Republican governor held a news conference in Albuquerque to highlight some of those initiatives, which she says are being ignored by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
The action started with a vote of the House Education Committee to advance a substitute version of legislation – HB 93 – that was initially drafted to mandate retention of third-graders who can’t read well. Advancement of such students has been called social promotion. The HB93 substitute adopted Saturday would make student retention optional.
The sponsor of the governor’s social promotion bill, Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, said she changed her mind on the mandatory retention, altering her original bill to say struggling third-graders “may be” retained rather than “shall be” retained.
“There is potential here for the child to be retained,” said Garcia, a former teacher and school administrator. “I’ve come to the conclusions we cannot make it mandatory because it has to be the decision of the districts and the individuals. In the state of New Mexico, we have such a variation of students that come with different needs.”
The substitute bill was approved by the committee on Saturday without any objections.
Although they voted to advance the legislation, committee Republicans said they don’t support the shift from mandatory retention to optional retention, said Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell. Other aspects of the bill, such as intensive remediation for struggling students, are already available in state law, Espinoza said.
“In respect to Mary Helen Garcia, who has a passion and has always fought for our kids and English language learners to be able to read, in that spirit (we) supported her, but that bill really does nothing that we actually don’t do presently,” Espinoza said.
The governor, at her news conference in Albuquerque on Saturday, said there’s still time to change the bill back to its original language, and get it through the House and Senate before the Legislature ends its regular session on Thursday.
“It can still be changed back to ‘shall,’ ” Martinez said. “… There’s still time. Most of the work is done in the last week. We have plenty of time to get it done.”
The governor also called attention to her proposal to create “parent portals” that would give parents access to check in on their students’ daily grades and attendance.
“(The parent portal) tells you what they’re learning so you can have that conversation at dinner and say, ‘What did you learn today in science?’ ” Martinez told reporters at the Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science, a charter school that has its own such portal.
The $1.5 million for parent portals is one of several “below-the-line” initiatives Martinez has requested to be implemented and managed by her Public Education Department in an effort to increase accountability for the spending.
That approach to school funding has drawn rancorous opposition from Democrats, educator unions, and school boards and administrators, who say most new education spending should go to local districts “above the line” – meaning through the state public schools funding formula to be used at the districts’ discretion.
The debate surrounding above- or below-the-line public school funding is one of the issues that has kept adoption of a state budget in limbo. The House has been unable to advance a budget bill and the Senate Finance Committee has started its own drafting effort.
During their rally at the Capitol, teachers voiced disdain for teacher evaluations mandated by Martinez’s Public Education Department, which they say are faulty and unfair, and what they argued is an over-emphasis on testing in schools.
Demonstrating teachers also voiced their long-running objections to the governor’s nomination of Hanna Skandera, who has no regular classroom teaching experience, to head the PED.
The rally began on the Plaza ended inside the Capitol Rotunda. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Gov. Martinez has to go,” teachers chanted as they marched to the Roundhouse.
Martinez is seeking re-election this year and teachers’ unions will likely be among the most active players in the fall campaign.
Tammy Silva, a second-grade teacher at Bosque Farms Elementary in Los Lunas, said teachers are overburdened with state and federal mandates, and are being vilified by politicians.
“Teachers get no say in what we do, and we are getting blamed for what’s going wrong,” she said.
The rally was organized by two unions, the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and the National Education Association New Mexico.
Estimates on how many people attended the teachers’ rally Saturday in Santa Fe ranged from 800 to 2,000.