What a difference a year makes.
Last year, Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia was taking a victory lap, telling a Journal reporter that the school grades for the 2016-17 academic year showed her school district was making progress.
“Overall, I hope people recognize we’re improving,” she said at the time, adding that more of her district’s schools had earned an A or a B and fewer received a D or F. “We’re on a positive trajectory. We’re starting to get traction.”
Garcia, who served as New Mexico’s first education secretary under former Gov. Bill Richardson, even went so far as to say there’s no use complaining about the system.
“We have to work within the system we have,” she said last year, adding that a new governor may change the system again.
Fast forward to this year, and Garcia is singing a decidedly different tune.
She’s now saying school grades aren’t an accurate measure of how a school is doing, and she’s accusing Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski of retaliating against her and her district by highlighting how poorly the district did on this year’s grades. Specifically, 56 percent of SFPS schools received either a D or F grade, compared to 46 percent last year. PED, in a news release, said Santa Fe is the “most concerning” among the state’s largest school districts, and Ruszkowski even called SFPS a district in crisis.
“When a district is not doing well, you have to look at its superintendent,” the Santa Fe New Mexican quoted him as saying.
Garcia contends PED is disparaging her district’s school grades because of her public support for a judge’s blistering, landmark decision that New Mexico is violating the constitutional rights of “at-risk” students with insufficient funding – a lawsuit for which she was a lead witness. And she has also spoken out against PED’s decision to appeal the ruling.
“I have never seen a secretary single out a school district in this manner,” she said.
To be sure, if PED wanted to retaliate over the lawsuit, there’s a line. And by the same token, not all of Santa Fe Public Schools’ challenges can be laid at her feet. But leadership starts at the top, and Garcia was ready, willing and able to bask in the glory and take credit when SFPS grades were on the rise last year. And the fact school grades are based in large part on student improvement does mean that if your students are not learning and getting closer to proficiency, you have a very real problem.
Ruszkowski was absolutely right to highlight the Santa Fe school district’s poor grades this year and sound an alarm on the district’s backslide. And Garcia is wrong when she says PED has never singled out a school district in this manner.
Last year, Ruszkowski publicly criticized Albuquerque Public Schools, arguing it had an “aversion to quantitative measurement” of student performance. In fact, he publicly compared APS’ attitude to a doctor who won’t take a child’s temperature or measure blood pressure because the process is too uncomfortable.
And this year APS showed real improvement, with more A and B school grades, and fewer Fs; two of its most challenged schools jumped up two letter grades.
Part of the education secretary’s job is to shine a light on school districts that aren’t measuring up, and if that makes Garcia and SFPS school board members uncomfortable, then so be it. School grades are about students being ready for the next chapter in their lives, not adults’ egos. And it’s worth noting Garcia, as education secretary, did something similar when her agency came up with a list of the worst-performing schools in the state – including ranking each one – as part of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top funding application.
At the end of the day, bickering does nothing to move anyone forward. Taxpayers and Santa Fe’s more than 13,000 students deserve results, not rhetoric, from their education leaders.