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Student retention proposal tabled

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez’s latest effort to end “social promotions” of third-graders struggling with reading was on its deathbed Saturday after the Senate Education Committee voted to put it down.

Senate Democrats instead advanced two alternative plans focusing on more teaching intervention programs for underperforming students without new rules on holding students back.

The sponsor of the governor’s bill, Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said she planned to renew the effort next year, instead of trying to “blast” the legislation out of the committee and revive it in the current legislative session, with three weeks left.

This is the third year in a row the Republican governor has proposed the reading retention legislation to the Democratic-controlled Legislature. She argues it is critical to improving student achievement and the state’s low-ranking public school system.

Martinez contends Democratic solutions over the years have not resulted in noticeable progress. Democrats say there is no evidence to show that third-grade retentions help student performance.

Martinez’s office did not immediately respond to Journal requests for comment on Saturday’s development.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-4 along party lines to table the governor’s Senate Bill 260, carried by Kernan, after a nearly four-hour hearing. All five Democrats voted to table the bill and all four Republicans voted against tabling.

The legislation aimed to end the practice known as social promotion, or allowing unprepared students to advance to higher grade levels. It would also have created new teaching intervention programs to identify struggling students early and get them extra classroom attention. Martinez has earmarked $13.5 million in the budget to pay for the proposed interventions.

The vote Saturday came just days after the House Education Committee tabled a House version of the legislation.

After failing to pass the education committees in both chambers, the legislation has no clear path forward in either chamber.

Democrats in the Senate Education Committee on Saturday voted to advance two of their own proposals for new intervention programs to help struggling students.

The alternatives would also differ with the governor’s proposal by allowing school districts to decide how money is spent on new intervention programs instead of the state Public Education Department, which is under the governor’s control.

Kernan said she was disappointed by the Senate committee vote Saturday.

“That’s part of the (voting) record now,” said Kernan, a Hobbs educator. “I guess there was no interest in taking, I thought, some very good points in Senate Bill 260 and combining them with some of the good things in the other two bills.”

The third-grade retention bill would have allowed parents to veto a school decision to hold back their child in cases if the struggling student attended 95 percent of school days and participated in required tutoring programs.

Kernan said the rules would have set a clear standard for when retention is allowed. Those standards would be an improvement over current retention rules that allow school teachers and administrators to make a subjective decision, she said.

Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he opposed the third-grade retention bill because it didn’t do enough to include parents in the retention decision.

“There was parental involvement except for the one year (third grade) where they made it a mandatory situation unless you meet all these other requirements,” Sapien said. “I think that looking at it, for me personally, it’s about having the parents involved at every grade level.”

Some Democratic members of the Senate Education Committee on Saturday argued that research doesn’t prove that third-grade student retention improves long term academic performance or the likelihood of high school graduation.

“The vast majority of studies show there is no benefit to retention when it is based on academics,” said Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, a school teacher. “I think that’s a bad and dangerous thing for us to be doing, to have mandatory retention.”

Kernan said there is no research to show that advancing under-prepared students to higher grade levels improves their long term academic achievement, either.

Both bills passed by Senate Education on Saturday to create new intervention programs for struggling students will now go to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.

Senate Bill 640, introduced by Sapien, would alter current retention rules by requiring schools to refer cases where retention was recommended but vetoed by the parents to the state Public Education Department. The referral would allowing the department to track whether those students show sufficient academic improvements in future years.

Sapien’s bill would use about $11 million in new funding to create new early intervention programs to identify struggling students and help them improve reading skills.

The Senate Education also passed Senate Bill 474, sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, to create a new system of intervention programs for students struggling in both math and reading.

New programs in that bill would include hiring at least one specialized “interventionist” in each school district to work with struggling students.

Lopez’s bill requests nearly $68 million in annual funding to pay for the proposed programs.
Student retention proposal tabled

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal