Skandera spoke during a luncheon hosted by NAIOP, the New Mexico chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Development Association. The panel included three other Republican-appointed Cabinet secretaries: Celina Bussey, Workforce Solutions Department; Barbara Damron, Higher Education Department; and Monique Jacobson, Children, Youth and Families Department.
Asked to describe their career accomplishments and disappointments, Skandera placed the unions firmly in the “disappointment” category.
“We have an entrenched political establishment called unions that fundamentally enjoy keeping us where we are because they serve the adults,” she said. “At the end of the day, the politics around the adult issues have too many times sacrificed our kids and their education.”
Skandera characterized the state’s two teachers unions – the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and National Education Association New Mexico – as well-funded operations that pull in about $7 million a year. The vast majority comes from teachers’ dues, but the unions’ national offices are also investing about $2 million a year “to fight putting kids’ interests first,” Skandera said.
“The disappointment is they still have quite a loud voice, and if you’re not vigilant they do continually take ground,” she said.
For years, the New Mexico Public Education Department has battled both unions over its controversial teacher evaluation system, PARCC testing and school grades.
Skandera said she believes the unions have not communicated her policies accurately to their members, so she is making an effort to reach educators directly through events like a summer Teacher Summit.
During a Journal interview, she called for “every New Mexican” to push back against the unions’ agenda.
“Our voice needs to be louder than an association that advocates for adults only,” Skandera told the Journal.
Stephanie Ly, president of AFT NM, countered that Skandera is blaming others for her failings.
Teachers and their unions have worked to stop Skandera from “turning our schools into nothing more than data points on a spreadsheet,” Ly said in an email statement.
Charles Goodmacher, NEA N.M. government and media relations director, highlighted teachers’ dedication under difficult conditions.
“New Mexicans know the biggest problems in New Mexico are a lack of funding for public schools overall, a need for more parent involvement, an end to the overuse of standardized student testing, and out-of-school factors like poverty, family instability and such,” he said in an email statement.
Like Skandera, the other Cabinet secretaries also decried the politics that comes with their positions during their comments at the NAIOP lunch.
They also called for greater connections between New Mexico’s business and education communities to boost student opportunities.
While New Mexico has struggled in 49th place on nearly every measure of educational attainment for years, there is hope for change, particularly if the state adopts a “can-do attitude,” the secretaries said.
“We can turn this around, but we have to have that mindset that we can do it,” Damron said.