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Social promotion measure stalls

House Education Committee Democrats on Monday tabled legislation backed by Gov. Susana Martinez to provide intense reading intervention but hold back most third-graders who can’t adequately read, saying there wasn’t enough money to afford it.

House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Mary Helen Garcia – a Democrat and former educator from Las Cruces – is intended to end the practice known as social promotion of allowing unprepared students to advance to higher grade levels.

The bill would also create new intervention programs to identify struggling students early and get them extra classroom attention.

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The bill was tabled Monday in a party-line vote by the Democratic-controlled House Education Committee.

Martinez, a Republican, has said her initiative to hold back struggling students and create new remediation programs in lower grade levels is essential to improving the state’s education system.

That proposal has fallen short during the past two legislative sessions when opponents said the bill didn’t do enough to include parents in the decision to hold a student back.

Supporters now say the version being considered this year addresses those concerns by allowing parents to veto a school decision to hold a student back if the child attended 95 percent of classes and participated in required remediation programs.

The Governor’s Office said Monday that the House Education Committee “played politics with the issue.”

Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said the primary concern is that the governor’s proposal amounts to an unfunded mandate for the state’s schools.

“These schools have been cut to the bone, so every time they add an unfunded mandate, they just produce more consternation among educators across the state,” said Stewart, a retired Albuquerque Public Schools educator.

“… Unless we are going to fund these new interventions and allow our current retention policy to go forward, I don’t believe the House Education Committee will be passing the bill.”

The Governor’s Office has budgeted about $13.5 million for the 2014 fiscal year to fund the expanded remediation and retention program. Opponents, however, say that’s not enough.

A competing bill, Senate Bill 474, sponsored by Stewart and Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would expand remedial education of under-performing students in kindergarten through eighth grade in both math and reading.

That bill would increase statewide school funding by $67.8 million per year to support the expanded programs.

Garcia, the Democratic sponsor of the governor’s retention bill, said she was disappointed by the vote of the committee, which she described as hostile. Garcia said she believed the committee vote was swayed by the teachers unions that oppose the effort.

“I was rather disappointed that all the Democrats voted with them,” Garcia said.

Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said the legislation to allow for retention of students who can’t read sufficiently before fourth grade is necessary to limit dropout rates.

He said the Governor’s Office remains confident the bill still can win “broad support.”

“Making sure our kids can read by the time they leave the third grade, and intervening to help struggling students before they get frustrated and drop out, are not partisan issues,” Knell said in a statement. “We know that 88 percent of students who drop out could not read proficiently in the third grade. Improving the chances of our children succeeding is what this issue is about, and reading well is key to success in life.”

Stewart, however, countered that the governor is using the reading retention bill as a “political football” rather than an effort to create an effective solution.

“There’s ways to try to impact early reading that we’re not doing because we’re just not funding it,” Stewart said.

The governor’s proposed retention program has received mixed reviews from school leaders around the state.

For example, Albuquerque Public Schools officials have voiced opposition to the effort, while the superintendent of Pojoaque Valley Schools has endorsed it.

Previous opposition

Opponents of the third-grade retention bill, including Stewart, said during previous legislative sessions that their opposition to the proposal centered on a concern that parents would have no say in whether a child is held back.

Supporters say they’ve addressed those concerns in the 2013 version of the bill.

Stewart said Monday that those new provisions are insufficient because they would force public schools to act as police to determine whether parents can have a say on the decision to hold a student back.

Despite HB 257 being stalled in House Education, a Senate version is under consideration in that chamber as Senate Bill 260, introduced by Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs.

That bill is now headed to the Senate Education Committee for debate after being approved 5-3 last week by the Senate Public Affairs Committee.

That committee also passed, unanimously, the competing bill to add $67.8 million for remediation programs without new retention rules.
Social promotion measure stallsfrom PAGE A1

Legislature 2013