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State law on fixing failing schools is unclear

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The Legislative Education Study Committee says the Public Education Department may not have as much authority as it claims to regarding measures requiring “more rigorous interventions,” which aim to improve chronically low-performing schools.

Three elementary schools in Albuquerque and one in Dulce, along with their communities, have been immersed in a process of restructuring after being identified by PED as in need of such interventions, or MRIs.

At a monthly meeting Thursday, the LESC released a brief that said there are gaps in state law that make it unclear whether PED has the authority to have the final say on MRI improvement plans, which the state agency has been exercising thus far.

PED has been overseeing Albuquerque Public Schools and Dulce Independent School District’s revamp plans for the four MRI schools in the state: Los Padillas, Hawthorne, Whittier and Dulce elementaries. All four have received F school grades five to six years in a row.

The LESC is a bipartisan, bicameral interim committee of the Legislature that conducts studies on education issues in the state and recommends changes to education laws as needed. It consists of 22 Democrats and 11 Republicans, according to its website.

In the wake of APS and PED’s monthslong dialogue over what should happen at the schools, the LESC looked into what the law allows.

“The answer we got from our staff is that (PED is) operating in a gray area, and to me that means they are overstepping their bounds,” said Rep. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, vice chairman of the LESC and a former Los Padillas student.

Romero also said that no one from PED was at the committee meeting to explain otherwise.

“It is unclear that PED has the explicit statutory authority to enforce plans for more rigorous interventions for anything beyond providing Title I funding,” the LESC analysis said.

“Additionally, because these schools have not violated state law or department regulations or standards, it remains unclear whether PED has the authority to require specific management, governance or staffing decisions made at the school district and school levels.”

In the absence of a statutory framework for school improvement plans, PED has relied on the federal Every Student Succeeds Act – that requires states to support their lowest- performing schools – to implement changes at the MRI schools, according to the report.

“Though ESSA clearly intends for schools to be given a period of technical assistance and financial support … before they receive more rigorous interventions, PED designated four schools for more rigorous interventions in the 2018-2019 school year. It is unclear what level of technical assistance and financial support these schools received from PED over the last three years,” the analysis says.

Romero said, “They’re playing loosely by state law, and I don’t think they are abiding by ESSA.”

PED wrote in a comment to the Journal that ESSA is the “law of the land,” noting that it was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 and New Mexico’s plan was approved by the U.S. Department of Education in 2017.

“Not only is implementation of the state plan required, but it is based on a set of promises that New Mexico has made to stakeholders, taxpayers, educators and, most importantly, our children,” PED’s comment said.

The LESC analysis came as a deadline for APS to respond to some of the PED-approved MRI plans loomed Friday.

By May 18, PED said the district had to fully agree to Los Padillas and Whittier’s plans or it faced losing control over the schools. PED said it received letters from APS on Friday and is reviewing the responses.

LESC staff recommended the Legislature re-establish a framework for school improvement plans that clarifies the roles and responsibilities of PED, school districts and the individual schools.

Romero said the committee will take staff recommendations into consideration and see where it can change and clarify state statute.

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