The American Federation of Teachers’ president characterized Gov. Susana Martinez and Education Secretary Hanna Skandera as relentless opponents of public education who attack unions to deflect attention away from their own failings. Randi Weingarten made those comments during a visit to New Mexico to address lawmakers at the special legislative session.
The AFT president – national leader of a union with 23,000 New Mexico members – told the
Journal on Wednesday that the governor and her administration “have always been on war footing with public education” and they “never let up on it.”
“You see this kind of constant, constant, constant defunding, blaming,
shaming and coming up with top-down rules,” Weingarten said. “Their knee-jerk reaction is to blame teachers in classrooms. … It is a toxic environment.” Last week, Skandera criticized teachers unions during a luncheon hosted by NAIOP, the New Mexico chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, calling them “an entrenched political establishment” that “fundamentally enjoy keeping us where we are because they serve the adults.”
To Weingarten, it’s all a “blame game” that distracts from the real issues: poor academic outcomes for New Mexico children and “cruel” cuts to the education budget.
On Wednesday morning, Weingarten attended a news conference at the Roundhouse to address lawmakers ahead of the special session and push for no further cuts to New Mexico public education, as well as the restoration of higher education funding for the 2017-18 academic year.
In April, Martinez line-item vetoed all funding for higher education and the legislative branch, setting the stage for the special session.
Martinez did allocate money for K-12 education, but district administrators have said they are waiting to see if the funding level changes during the session.
Lida Alikhani, New Mexico Public Education Department spokeswoman, accused Weingarten of coming to New Mexico to grandstand.
“This is what New York union bosses do – parachute into states they know nothing about in an effort to score cheap political points,” she said in an emailed statement. “For all of the union lip service about local decision making, they never miss an opportunity to fly in from the East Coast and create a spectacle in front of the TV cameras.”
Alikhani highlighted Martinez’s efforts to work “hand-in-hand with classroom teachers” and “put more money into education than ever before.”
The state has seen gains on several measures – the graduation rate rose from 69 percent in 2015 to 71 percent in 2016; student achievement was up in 19 of 21 categories in 2016 and the number of students taking Advanced Placement exams has increased by 90 percent since 2010.
But Weingarten argued that New Mexico is actually falling behind. New Mexico is ranked 49th for child well-being, down from 46th during the 1990s, according to the Kids Count Data Book.
Martinez and Skandera are also “focused on dismantling through defunding and destabilizing public education as an institution for the public good,” according to Weingarten.
Ellen Bernstein, Albuquerque Teachers Federation president, echoed that view.
“They are blaming the people who are working every day in the classroom without supplies, with inadequate resources, with no raises, with disrespect, with constant pseudo-reforms that put everything on testing with no trust in teachers – that’s who they are blaming,” she said. “To the extent that this union has kept Skandera from unilaterally changing public schooling into public testing for 180 days in every classroom, then, yeah, I have stopped it, and I am proud of it.”