Ronchetti pitches agenda to improve New Mexico schools - Albuquerque Journal

Ronchetti pitches agenda to improve New Mexico schools

Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti announces his public safety priorities earlier this year during a news conference in Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Republican Mark Ronchetti cited the dismal academic proficiency rates in New Mexico schools Tuesday as he outlined the policy agenda he said he would pursue as governor – a plan that includes issuing $1,500 stipends to help some students catch up and a law to limit growth in administrative spending.

He also said he would push to increase instructional time for students and require districts to spend their COVID-19 relief funds on classroom programs for kids who have fallen behind, not capital improvements.

Ronchetti outlined the ideas as part of a plan he unveiled near the headquarters of Albuquerque Public Schools.

He is challenging Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Libertarian Karen Bedonie in the Nov. 8 election.

“We have failed the kids in this state and this system year after year after year,” Ronchetti said.

In their own news conference, Democrats blasted Ronchetti’s plan, calling parts of it ineffective, impractical or duplicative of Lujan Grisham’s policy initiatives.

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and retired teacher, said a recent jump in teacher salaries backed by Lujan Grisham is drawing more people into the profession and helping schools fill vacancies.

COVID-19 relief funds, she said, are paying for important heating, ventilation and cooling upgrades that benefit students, and imposing limits on administrative spending simply isn’t necessary.

Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mark Ronchetti. (Images courtesy of the candidates)

“I really believe he’s a danger to public education here as we know it,” Stewart said of Ronchetti.

The debate comes as New Mexico struggles with persistently low proficiency rates in schools. Just 25% of the third- to eighth-grade students taking part in an annual assessment were proficient in math and 34% were proficient in language arts, according to test results released last week.

Ronchetti, a former television meteorologist, said it’s time to abandon the “failed policies” of Lujan Grisham and some legislators.

He proposed a $100 million program that would issue stipends of $1,500 a year for up to three years to low-income families with children in first through third grade. The money, Ronchetti said, could go toward tutoring or other academic support to help the students catch up after the extended closures of in-person education earlier in the pandemic.

Ronchetti also took aim at former House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat who stepped down last year amid allegations that money intended for vocational education at APS had been routed to businesses and charities in which she had an interest.

Stapleton was indicted last year, and her attorney said she vigorously denies the charges and will clear her name in court.

Ronchetti described the criminal case as an example of educational money squandered.

“We waste so much money in administration, it’s terrifying,” he said.

The state, he said, should enact a law limiting spending growth on school administration.

He also called for giving parents more choice in what public schools their children attend, through charter or magnet schools; increased instructional time in classrooms; and greater financial transparency and public performance data for schools.

Principals at high-performing schools should be given more autonomy, he said, and chronically low-performing schools should undergo leadership changes.

Democrats said Ronchetti’s plan would damage public education.

Stewart, the Senate president pro tem, said administrative spending in schools simply “is not a problem.”

This year’s budget legislation includes a provision calling for the Public Education Department to monitor school and district budgets to ensure funding goes to the functions most likely to improve student outcomes.

Lujan Grisham, Stewart said, has a strong record of accomplishment on education, including a bipartisan bill that boosted the starting pay for teachers from $40,000 to $50,000, in addition to other increases.

Nearly 5,200 new teachers joined the state’s workforce in the most recent fiscal year, according to Public Education Department data, up from fewer than 2,900 the year before.

“The salaries have made a real difference,” Stewart said.

Increased instructional time for students, she said, is already a priority of New Mexico policymakers, who have made more funding available for programs that extend the school year, among other strategies.

But it takes time, Stewart said, for policy changes to take effect and improve academic outcomes, especially after disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Whitney Holland, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union, said Lujan Grisham has a proven track record that goes beyond campaign promises.

“We have seen her work firsthand,” she said. “Now is not the time to take our foot off the gas.”

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