In final hours of session, advocates mourn special ed bill’s stall - Albuquerque Journal

In final hours of session, advocates mourn special ed bill’s stall

Valentin “Gogo” Anaya at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Valentin “Val” Anaya)

Valentin “Gogo” Anaya, who’s on the autism spectrum, is still mastering reading at 17 years old.

But in rural Socorro, where his family lives, Anaya’s father says it’s difficult to get the professional support his son needs, leading to the high school senior going through seven special education directors and eight aides between his first grade year and now.

“The way I see it, he could have been valedictorian. … He’s really smart,” Valentin “Val” Anaya said of his son. “He isn’t educated as well as he could have been. The education he’s got — it is a result of his community more than it is of his school.”

Anaya paints a picture of frustrating experiences and spotty special education providers that ultimately drove his family to move his son to online learning, from which he’s expected to graduate this year. When he does, he hopes to go on to Central New Mexico Community College.

Valentin “Gogo” Anaya, flanked by his mother, Gloria, meets Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2020 at the Roundhouse. (Photo courtesy of Valentin “Val” Anaya)

There is a bill that could help streamline teacher training, funding and other resources for students like Anaya’s son, he said — if it could just get off the House floor’s to-do list.

If passed, House Bill 285 — dubbed the Special Education Act — would establish a new office within the state Public Education Department that would collaborate with other state agencies on handling many aspects of special education.

That would include monitoring how money intended for special education is spent, tracking the academic progress of students with disabilities, as well as coordinating efforts to recruit special education professionals. Many of the office’s duties would require collaboration with agencies like the Children, Youth and Families Department and other divisions in the PED.

The bill would also get the ball rolling on paying educators, teaching assistants and other school staff who work with special education students on differential levels.

But HB 285 appears to have stalled on the House floor, after being given the go-ahead by the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee last Friday.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has strongly urged lawmakers to act on the bill.

“We are quickly running out of time,” she said in a Wednesday news release. “Further study is not going to solve this problem, and the time for the Legislature to act is now.”

The bill’s faced some turbulence on its journey through the Roundhouse.

Some have questioned why it’s needed, arguing that it calls for work to be done that should already be in place.

“If these activities have not been going on, then there’s no law in the country or in the state that we can pass to make people collaborate,” Rep. Brian Baca, R-Los Lunas, said during an early March committee meeting. “I don’t understand how this differs from our current situation.”

Supporters of the bill have cited lagging student achievement among special education students, along with a 2018 court decision finding that students with disabilities weren’t being provided a sufficient education system by the state, in asking for the bill to be pushed forward.

Almost 18% of New Mexico students receive special education, according to PED data.

The bill — which includes provisions that the special education office would work to make sure school districts provide culturally and linguistically relevant services for students with disabilities — has garnered some support from tribal leaders.

It also had backing from American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, whose president, Whitney Holland, said the bill would be a powerful advocacy tool for families.

“It’s disappointing,” she said of the bill’s apparent stall on the House floor. “At a minimum, I think it started the conversation, and I think there’s going to be work done in the interim around this topic. But yeah, it was sad,”

With only hours left in the legislative session, it’s not clear if the bill will make it into law during this session. But Anaya said that won’t spell the end of the fight.

“Some of these issues that we’ve had, we’ve had for 30 or 40 years,” he said. “So if it doesn’t work now, we got next session.”

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