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Bid denied to halt teacher eval system

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A state district court judge has denied a petition filed by state legislators, teachers unions and an individual teacher that aimed to stop the state’s new teacher-evaluation system, because the judge said that the state education chief was well within her power to unilaterally overhaul the process for evaluating New Mexico educators.

Judge Shannon Bacon issued the ruling Friday and rejected the petitioners’ claims that, one, state education chief Hanna Skandera acted outside the scope of her authority in implementing the new evaluation process and, two, that two provisions of the new system violate state law.

Bacon said Skandera did not exceed her authority in implementing the new measures, which were announced this year, because the Legislature has generally given administrators “broad authority” in adopting criteria for evaluating teachers so long as the reforms include student achievement as a component.

According to Bacon’s ruling, the plaintiffs also claimed that the State Personnel Act requires a “binary” system of evaluating teachers, and that Skandera’s new system violates the act by imposing a five-tiered system for evaluations, ranging from exemplary to ineffective. However, Bacon said that the only legislative directive for education administrators is that teacher-evaluation standards be “highly objective” and “uniform statewide.”

The petition was filed in early September in 2nd Judicial District Court. The petitioners included state Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, in addition to the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, Albuquerque teachers union president Ellen Bernstein, and Los Alamos teacher Ryan Ross. Defendants included Skandera, the Public Education Department and the state of New Mexico.

Bernstein on Saturday called the new system “high stakes testing on steroids” and said Bacon’s ruling will not stop her efforts to stop Skandera’s evaluation reform. She said one possible venue for presenting an alternative is the upcoming legislative session, but she said she’s concerned Gov. Susana Martinez will veto any other proposal, even if it accomplishes the same objectives and achieves bipartisan support.

“Teachers statewide are going to be incredibly disappointed, but this isn’t the end of trying to fight an ill conceived, implemented, poorly imposed evaluation system,” she said. “… Everybody knows that high-stakes testing is bad for kids.”

The petitioners’ attorney, Shane Youtz, and the other petitioners could not be reached for comment Saturday. However, Youtz told the Journal previously that the new system, in addition to exceeding Skandera’s authority as an administrator, violated state law by not being “uniform statewide” and allowing people other than principals to evaluate teachers in their classrooms. In her ruling, Bacon said petitioners were concerned the statute permitted assistant principals to observe teachers.

State law states that, “… The school principal shall observe each teacher’s classroom practice to determine the teacher’s ability to demonstrate state-adopted competencies.”

However, Bacon ruled that, while the law requires the participation of school principals, it “does not limit the persons who may observe a teacher’s classroom practice to principals, to the exclusion of other observers.”

Also, the petition claimed that the system was not being implemented even-handedly because charter schools can file a waiver to be exempt from the system. Bacon, in overruling this claim, pointed out that the state Charter Schools Act requires the Public Education Department to waive evaluation standards for charter schools, and that, because the Legislature has approved such an exemption, Skandera did not violate state law or exceed her authority.

In a statement released Saturday, Skandera called the petition “punitive and frivolous,” and asked that the petitioners re-focus their efforts on students.

“Delay is a favorite tactic of the status quo and our students don’t have the luxury of waiting,” Skandera said. “If those looking to derail critical reforms would refocus their energy on our students in the classroom, we know we could achieve success much sooner.”

The petition is the second such effort in two years to strike down the new evaluation standards. The state and Albuquerque chapters of AFT filed a petition last year to the state Supreme Court, asking it to strike down the system because it exceeded the executive branch’s authority over the state Legislature.

That petition came in response to Skandera’s implementation of the new standards under an administrative rule. Before Skandera unilaterally put the standards into effect, the state Legislature twice voted against adopting the plan.

Bacon, in her ruling, said that the Legislature’s refusal to adopt the evaluation system as a state law does not mean that Skandera does not have the power to enact it herself.

“The question presented here is not whether proposed legislation would have provided authority for (Skandera’s) actions, but whether existing legislation does,” Bacon wrote in her opinion. “In this case, existing legislation provides authority for (Skandera) to adopt evaluation criteria that places increased emphasis on student performance.”

Teachers unions and other have vehemently opposed the new evaluation system since it was launched this year, saying it excessively uses student testing as a way to grade teachers, schools and students. Under the new system, a large percentage of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on the test scores of that teacher’s students. Those test scores will also be used to determine a school’s overall rating.

The new system has sparked huge rallies of teachers and others against the reforms, and the Albuquerque teachers union in early October challenged Skandera to a debate on the topic. Skandera declined to participate.