Editorial: How is failure an option?

It’s an important question few in power in New Mexico have been willing to ask until now – but one the state’s newly appointed public education secretary seems prepared to address:

“How much longer do our children have to fail for us to get this right?” Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, asked during a legislative hearing last month, delivering some of his remarks in Tewa.

While his comments came in a discussion of progress – or lack thereof – in the education of Native American students, the question is a fair one for all New Mexico kids of every race and ethnicity as the state’s public education system languishes at the bottom nationally in terms of student achievement.

The state now has a new Cabinet secretary tasked with changing those awful dynamics.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Thursday she was tapping recently retired Los Alamos Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus as public education secretary to succeed Ryan Stewart, who announced his resignation to help with his ailing father.

A former teacher who spent 12 years in the classroom and served as deputy public education secretary under Gov. Bill Richardson, Steinhaus had some interesting comments at his introduction – including his goal of having New Mexico lead the nation in academic growth in the next three years.

“I’m all in,” he said, adding that he wants to make the upcoming return to school a “year of literacy.”

It’s refreshing to hear about aspirational goals and plans to achieve them instead of the all-too-familiar mantra that many of our kids can’t learn because our state is too poor, drugs are too rampant, too many parents are not engaged and so on. And on.

Steinhaus has his work cut out.

Former Cochiti Pueblo Gov. Regis Pecos in his presentation to the Legislative Finance Committee also slammed the state’s efforts to improve education for Native American students in response to a landmark court ruling that found New Mexico wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligations to provide a sufficient education.

Following a Santa Fe District Court judge’s ruling in what is known as the Yazzie-Martinez case, the state has boosted teacher salaries, funded an extended school year (voluntary for districts) and expanded early childhood education programs that prepare kids for kindergarten. It also revised a budget formula and made other changes intended to deliver more funding to schools that serve at-risk and low-income students.

But Pecos said there is “no evidence that dollars received by school districts reach Native students and meet their needs.”

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said he had “started to question whether more money is actually needed beyond what we’ve invested.” It’s a point the Journal has argued in previous editorials, that means the overriding failure is in execution, not in the commitment, of resources.

“I’d hate to be back here in 20 years talking about how nothing has changed,” Martinez said.

Lawmakers were told that, in 2019, just 30% of third graders in the demographic groups in question were proficient in reading.

During the legislative hearing, Stewart fielded questions and criticism about high turnover at PED. He told lawmakers the agency had strengthened its oversight of how school districts spend their funding for at-risk students. He also pointed to strategies for encouraging a more diverse teacher workforce and supporting Indigenous languages.

“We’ve had a mindset shift at PED,” he said.

Meanwhile, a report last week by WalletHub listed the state as 51st in its national assessment of school systems. The study used 32 measures of quality and safety, with data ranging from pupil-teacher ratio and dropout rate to median standardized test scores and share of high school students with access to illegal drugs.

And nothing will change without evidence-based programs, accountability, measurement of progress, and directing money to the classroom and learning rather than administrative bloat.

Steinhaus appears to get that point. On Thursday he called on New Mexico school districts to focus their stimulus funding on teaching and learning. That includes initiatives like tutoring, before- and after-school programs and perhaps home visits to students’ families.

That’s another refreshing approach, especially given that many districts have targeted that money for equipment, ventilation repairs and similar projects.

Not exactly a waste of money – but not spending that will move the needle. And that’s what Steinhaus wants. “I want to see that money spent in a way that it creates a system of long-term improvement in New Mexico. Tutoring can do that. Teaching a kid to read can do that. A new HVAC system can’t.”

If Lujan Grisham’s new public education chief can move his vision to reality, New Mexicans might actually get the right answer to Lente’s question: “How much longer do our children have to fail for us to get this right?”

No more.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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