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Two teacher unions step up action against PED

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Both of New Mexico’s teacher unions took steps Friday to force the New Mexico Public Education Department to slow its implementation of new evaluation systems for both teachers and schools.

On Friday, AFT New Mexico sent a letter to the state’s schools chief threatening to withdraw support for renewal of New Mexico’s waiver under the No Child Left Behind Act if three conditions weren’t met.

The waiver, approved last year by the U.S. Department of Education, released New Mexico from No Child Left Behind and gave the state more flexibility on how it spends federal education dollars.

Also on Friday, the board of the state’s other teachers union, the National Education Association, passed a resolution authorizing its leadership team to look into legal action against the PED’s teacher evaluation system, which took effect this school year.

Patrick Sanchez, head of NEA in Las Cruces, said teachers there have reached a boiling point.

“It’s pretty fierce, close to nuclear,” he said of their opposition to PED’s plan.

The American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico, which represents 8,000 teachers and other school personnel, has already filed such a suit.

The letter AFT sent Friday is demanding that the state replace the A-F grading system for public schools with a system that is “transparent, understandable and fair to schools and students, and is developed with teachers, parents and the community.”

It also wants assurance that educators will get the support they need to meet Common Core standards – including curriculum materials, appropriate technology and adequate professional development days – and parents and the community have the opportunity to sign off on them once they are in place.

Third, the union is insisting that PED apply for the flexibility waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would allow the state to delay for one year the new teacher evaluation system.

“Unless New Mexico addresses these three points, AFTNM cannot support the state’s request for a renewal of its (NCLB) waiver,” states the letter addressed to state Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera and signed by Stephanie Ly, president of AFT New Mexico.

Ly could not be reached for comment late Friday.

The waiver allowed the state to use the federally approved A-F grading system to rate schools based on student growth and not just the static test score that was part of the highly criticized No Child Left Behind Act. Teachers and administrators blasted the act on many fronts, including its emphasis on standardized testing and its requirements regarding school improvement.

A PED spokesman responded to a Journal request for comment by saying that New Mexico students are without a doubt better off no longer being subjected to the “rigid approach” of No Child Left Behind.

“We worked hard in a bipartisan manner with the Obama Administration to be one of the first states to secure a waiver and it’s astonishing some want to return our children to that approach in the name of politics and defending the status quo,” PED’s Larry Behrens wrote in an email.

“We have great teachers and it’s important to recognize them, and that’s what the system does.”

New Mexico became the 11th state in the union to receive a waiver from NCLB in February 2012. The waiver allows the state to use the federally approved A-F grading system to rate schools based on student growth and other factors. No Child Left Behind focused on test scores, and demanded that they improved a certain amount each year.

The new teacher evaluation system that PED implemented by rule instead of legislative approval has provoked protests and talk of a teacher strike in Albuquerque and criticism from teachers and others around the state.

Among complaints by critics are that the system places too much weight on student achievement and that it would allow classroom observations by someone other than the school principal or assistant principal.

Last month, AFT was among a cadre of state legislators and teachers who filed a legal petition against the PED seeking to stop the NMTEACH teacher evaluation being implemented for the first time this year.

The petition claims that some elements of the administrative rule establishing the evaluations conflict with state law and are therefore illegal.

AFT represents Albuquerque teachers and others around the state.

On Friday, the state’s other major teachers union took its own step toward possible legal action over teacher evaluations.

The NEA, which also represents about 8,000, includes Santa Fe and Las Cruces in its membership.

Charles Bowyer, executive director of NEA New Mexico, said that Friday’s resolution says the leadership team will meet with general counsel to look into the teacher evaluation system and determine the best option for going forward with a legal strategy.

He said that meeting will take place Monday and a formal announcement could come as early as next week.

Bowyer said the union has worked with PED for several months to develop a collaborative process to address teacher evaluations. He said the union hasn’t seen the kind of “openness” it hoped for from Skandera.

Bowyer said he couldn’t say for sure what might result from the meeting with the union’s attorneys.

“This is still in its infancy,” he said. “We have had several exploratory discussions, and now have to determine what the best course of action and proper venue for legal action.”

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