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Skandera stepping down as education chief

New Mexico Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera will step down June 20. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

After nearly seven years on the job, New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera is stepping down.

Skandera told the Journal on Wednesday that her tenure will end June 20. The Cabinet secretary said she has not settled on her next career move but is considering options in New Mexico and other states.

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“When I am done with the position here, I will explore other opportunities, but I’ll be waiting until I finish to look at what’s next,” Skandera said.

“This is not the end of something – it’s a baton pass of things that are already moving,” she said, adding that she is proud of the reform she has implemented and the state’s improvement in several key areas such as graduation rates. “There is an incredible team at the department that has given just as much as I have in their commitment and their passion.”

Skandera has been a political lightning rod since she was appointed in 2010, failing to win confirmation from the New Mexico Legislature until February 2015.

Throughout her tenure, the secretary has frequently tangled with the state’s teachers unions and Democratic lawmakers over her data-driven reform, including controversial policies such as PARCC testing, school grades and the teacher evaluation system.

She insisted it was crucial to move quickly, but critics countered that the many changes were putting an unfair burden on teachers.

Skandera said her announcement has been months in the making, but she stressed she first wanted to finish out the school year and the Legislature’s special session.

Skandera spoke with the Journal exclusively Wednesday and planned to announce her resignation formally today.

Gov. Susana Martinez has not named a new secretary of education, but Skandera said she is confident her successor will continue her push for reforms. Skandera worked closely with a number of deputy secretaries who could be in line for the job, though Martinez has less than two years left in her term.

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Asked if she planned to stay in education, Skandera said, “It’s too early to make definitive statements.” She said she wanted to focus on her current job until she leaves before seriously exploring what’s next.

Public Education Department Secretary Hanna Skandera speaks during school choice day at the Legislature in Santa Fe in January. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

On Wednesday, Skandera, 43, said her time as secretary has been “the most challenging and rewarding” of her career.

While there is a long way to go in improving New Mexico’s education, she cited several statistics she is proud of:

• The state’s graduation rate is at an all-time high, 71 percent, up from 63 percent in 2011.

• New Mexico ranked second in the nation for growth in the number of students taking Advanced Placement exams, which provide college credits, in 2016.

• The number of A and B schools has increased 25 percent since 2011, impacting about 30,000 students.

• PARCC math results are up 14 percent, and PARCC English language arts results are up 5 percent.

But Skandera is quick to admit this “is not a spike the football moment.”

Again and again, New Mexico has landed at 49th in the nation for educational success, and the state is struggling to rise in the rankings.

Appointed by Martinez, Skandera moved to the Land of Enchantment from Florida, where she worked under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, a noted Common Core champion. It has not been smooth sailing.

Both unions – the National Education Association New Mexico and American Federation of Teachers New Mexico – have sued to halt the teacher evaluations, which use student test score growth as a major factor.

The unions contend the system is fundamentally unfair to teachers. Union leaders also argue that Skandera doesn’t listen to other points of view and places blame on teachers for the state’s low performance.

A number of Skandera’s policies were put in place over protests, including PARCC, a standardized test that sparked some student walkouts when instituted in 2015.

The bad blood goes both ways – Skandera has called the unions “an entrenched political establishment” that holds back progress.

On Wednesday, Skandera stressed that she cares deeply about New Mexico’s teachers.

“Not too many people or professions weather this much change in a short amount of time, and our educators and our school leaders and our superintendents have,” she said. “New Mexicans can be proud as they look across the nation that there is no other state, actually, that has embraced this much change, not rolled any of it back, pressed in and begun to see all their objective measures going up.”

During the past few months, Skandera has announced changes to PARCC and teacher evaluations based on teacher and parent feedback from across the state.

There is still a lot of work ahead, Skandera said, but her administration has “changed the game and the conversation.”

“If we spent decades at the bottom, it is going to take a little time to turn around a change in culture,” she said. “That’s what we’ve embarked on in New Mexico – to change our culture and change our outcomes – and it’s not a quick fix. If it was, we would have done it. It is absolutely a committed, persevering, passionate, courageous journey on behalf of our kids.”

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