Sidestepping the Legislature, governor creates new special education office - Albuquerque Journal

Sidestepping the Legislature, governor creates new special education office

Third grader Dominic Sotelo shakes the hand of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, flanked by Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque and Education Secretary Arsenio Romero, at Lowell Elementary School on Thursday. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

For Kristina Martinez, getting the special education services her son needs has been a long road.

Martinez’s son, Boyd, is a freshman at Rio Rancho High School who has severe autism. The family’s come a long way since he was first diagnosed, but Martinez says that to this day, she still struggles to get her son everything he needs — even down to getting him included on the school choir.

“It’s been a fight since the beginning,” she said.

But an executive order signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday, Martinez said, will help.

“It gives us a voice, a seat at the table, where there wasn’t one,” she said.

The executive order, the governor said at a Thursday news conference, will help families navigate the state’s special education system by creating a specialized office under the Public Education Department. Among other things, the office is tasked with helping to expand special education services, train and recruit more educators and track the state’s progress.

“We must do better,” Lujan Grisham said, lifting her pen to sign the executive order. “Today signals that we will.”

A big part of the effort to make special education more accessible, Lujan Grisham said, is bringing on more special education teachers and other licensed educators who help with those students.

In October 2022, New Mexico State University found that special education teachers made up the largest share of the state’s teacher vacancies with 193. There were also significant vacancies among other educators, including speech language pathologists and counselors.

“There are some real gaps, and I don’t want to minimize those for anybody here,” Lujan Grisham said. “We need more folks.”

The new office will also collect statewide special education data, enforce the state’s compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and work with other state agencies on

This isn’t the first time this year that lawmakers have tried to create a special education office. House Bill 285, introduced during this year’s legislative session and dubbed the “Special Education Act,” would have also created an office with the hopes of making special education services more accessible statewide.

But despite making its way through two House committees, the bill stalled on the House floor. So the governor, a staunch supporter of the bill during the session, said she had to take matters into her own hands.

“Someone, I’m sure, is going to ask me, ‘Well, are you mad at the Legislature?’ Always,” Lujan Grisham joked. “(But) I’m not waiting one more minute to get the services and the supports and the education that every student in New Mexico needs.”

There didn’t seem to be any hard feelings, though — at least, not from the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque.

“This is a jumping off point,” she said. “We can’t wait. … So waiting until the next legislative session doesn’t work for me or for families.”

During the session, some questioned how HB 285 — which would have created a similar special education office within the PED — would have expanded on what’s already being done by the state.

The new special education office, according to the executive order, will take over the reins from the PED’s existing special education division, but now with its own director who would report directly to the public education secretary.

It doesn’t necessarily expand on the duties of the division, but as a more self-contained body, the office does aim to jump start special education in the state, a spokesperson for the Office of the Governor said.

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