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Debating education in NM

The trajectory of New Mexico’s school systems is a central debate of the governor’s race, and candidates are feuding over the policies and proposals necessary for New Mexico to improve student achievement.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez contends the state is making progress under her reform agenda, with more money being spent overall and more being targeted for specific needs in the classroom.

The governor’s challenger, Democratic Attorney General Gary King, charges that the education gains cited by Martinez are little more than a belated indicator that education policies of her predecessor, Gov. Bill Richardson, started working before she took office in 2011.

As evidence of New Mexico’s gains, Martinez points to improved high school graduation rates during her first term, better standardized reading scores and best-in-the-nation improvement by Hispanic students taking advance placement course exams.

“New Mexico ranked as the No. 1 state with the greatest graduation growth in the country in the last 4 years,” Martinez said on the campaign trail. “We have gone up 15 percent. … Why would we want to take away those reforms …? Why would we go backwards?”

King says the path toward improvement on education in New Mexico lies in eliminating the required testing of children, giving teachers more autonomy by cutting out state Public Education Department mandates and dramatically increasing funding for early childhood education programs.

“I think there are ideas that have worked that have been positive,” King said at a campaign event. “The governor is taking credit for higher graduation rates, (but) a lot of those programs are programs that were passed by the Legislature under the Bill Richardson administration, and some of those programs take a little while to work.”

a00_jd_19oct_edissuesCompeting views

The governor counts among her education policy successes an increase in overall public schools education spending, bringing the total education budget to about $2.7 billion this year – the largest K-12 public education budget in state history.

Martinez also describes as successes the state’s A-to-F school grading system she successfully proposed to the Legislature, her administration’s regulatory initiative to conduct teacher evaluations based about 50 percent on student test scores and increased use of intervention programs for struggling students.

Driving those initiatives was Martinez’s education secretary-designate, Hanna Skandera, who came to New Mexico in 2011 after working on similar education initiatives in Florida.

Martinez says her administration’s efforts – which are largely in line with the national education initiatives backed by Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration – allowed New Mexico to qualify for a waiver of the controversial federal No Child Left Behind Act and shift control of New Mexico education policy from the federal government back to state and local school district control.

And with the No Child Left Behind waiver comes reduced standardized testing for New Mexico students, Martinez says.

But Martinez also says there’s more to do on education.

Martinez says if re-elected she would continue her push to hold back, one time, most students who can’t proficiently read at level by third grade despite intervention starting in kindergarten. That measure has repeatedly failed to pass the Legislature.

Currently, parents can veto the school’s recommendation that a student be held back.

And Martinez says teachers who demonstrate through the evaluation system that they are effective should get extra compensation. So far, under Martinez’s watch, teacher pay raises have mostly been awarded across-the-board. This year, Martinez also sought increased pay for entry-level teachers.

“I do believe that we have to be held accountable, and that our students have to succeed,” Martinez said. “They have to learn. We can’t continue to have the same status quo.”

Martinez’s education initiatives have drawn rancorous opposition from teacher unions, which say the governor has ignored professional educators and has instead placed her education policy in the hands of Skandera, who they criticize as an out-of-state political operative.

King has embraced the teacher unions’ line of attack in his bid against Martinez.

King said Martinez’s policies, including teacher evaluations half-based on test scores and efforts to hold back struggling third-graders, give state administrators more say in a child’s education than the child’s teacher and parents.

“We all know schools in New Mexico are in crisis right now,” King said. “… A lot of that is because professional educators are very concerned and very discouraged, and feeling not respected because they are not having input in what’s happening with our children.”

Evidence of that influence is shown in the use of teacher evaluations based in part on student test performance, King said. That evaluation method forces teachers to focus on prepping students for test day without consideration of how students learn best, King said.

Other parts of the evaluation system under Martinez include observation by principals and teacher attendance.

King says he would ditch that Martinez evaluation system in favor of one that grades teachers based primarily on peer evaluations.

Martinez pushed for changes to the state’s teacher evaluation system after an earlier method found that 99 percent of teachers evaluated were proficient, which critics believed to be a flawed measurement.

On school grading, King says the grades are too difficult for school leaders and parents to understand how they were calculated. Without understanding the grading process, the school grade is perceived as arbitrary and serves little value, King said.

Martinez says many school communities have rallied around the improved grades given to their schools.

Education spending

While Martinez touts current education spending as the highest ever, King says more money is needed to aid struggling schools.

For Martinez, education funding has included efforts to increase the amount of money that goes directly to the state Public Education Department, instead of through the department for PED to award to districts.

The approach is known as “below-the-line” spending, because it’s budgeted by the Legislature below the state appropriation paid to districts through the state funding formula. Martinez says that portion of funding allows targeting of needs and accountability for how education money is being spent.

The governor has used that below-the-line funding method to implement statewide initiatives such as reading coaches, increased funding for early childhood education programs and expansion of a program that extends the school year for kindergartners through third-graders in low-income school districts.

Critics have pushed back on that approach, saying it has shifted control away from local school districts to determine what is best for their students.

King says the state should eliminate below-the-line budgeting to the Public Education Department – an agency established by the Richardson administration as the clearinghouse for state school policy – and instead direct more money to school districts for local control.

Martinez responded to King’s proposal, saying, “We have all sorts of interventions (for students) that King wants to get rid of, because he wants to get rid of below-the-line funding.”

On the overall education budget, King says Martinez has effectively cut education spending by not keeping the percentage up in relation to other areas of the state budget.

“We have lost ground with our school funding and how much we’re spending with our overall budget, and we have to turn that around,” King said.

King said that although more is being spent in schools, education funding has dwindled back to about 44 percent of total state general fund spending from over 50 percent decades ago. However, his own Democratic Party controlled the Legislature during the same period.

King said he would restore the budget to the ratio that dedicates at least 50 percent of general fund spending to education. That would mean an estimated $350 million more per year would be needed in the eduction budget.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said calls to boost education spending to 50 percent of the state budget ignore the fact that the shift would require cutting about $350 million from other areas.

“You’re reaching into an areas where people say, ‘Don’t touch that, don’t touch that.’ It’s great campaign rhetoric, I’m sure,” Smith said. ” … But trying to follow through on that is always a challenge.”

On student testing

Driving dissatisfaction among teachers, King says, is the perception that more class time than ever before is being committed to standardized student testing and test preparation.

“We have to end high-stakes standardized testing in New Mexico as a tool for our schools, because it is taking us down the wrong road,” King said. “We have to make a change so that our schools are focusing on the well-being of students. … Right now, students don’t want to come to school because of the standardized testing.”

He said he would eliminate those “unnecessary” tests.

In fact, King says he would consider abandoning all federal testing requirements – and the tens of millions of dollars in federal funding that comes with those requirements – if it put New Mexico students in a better position to succeed.

“If we think it’s not the best for our students, we should be willing to say we’re going to go our own way,” King said.

King estimates that bucking the federal testing requirements would mean a loss of about $30 million in federal funding.

The state Public Education Department, however, says abandoning the federal regulations threatens over $400 million the state receives from the federal government.

Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez said abandoning the federal funding associated with testing requirements would “decimate our education system.”

And Martinez says King’s perception that students are spending more time taking tests is fiction.

The governor says her Public Education Department has reduced the amount of testing requirements for students – thanks to the waiver of the No Child Left Behind Act – but local school districts have opted to require other tests that may have increased the amount of testing.

The state, Martinez says, has no control over the testing requirements implemented by local school boards.

“You need to go back to your school board and ask your school board what tests they have added to it, and then draw the line,” Martinez told the Journal last week. “It’s not all just PED. We’ve actually reduced the (testing) hours. A lot of families don’t realize that. There’s a difference.”

Working with Legislature

Martinez’s education initiatives have been among her hardest-fought efforts since the Republican governor took office in 2011.

Martinez has faced fierce opposition to most of her proposals in the state Legislature, where a coalition of Democratic legislators have effectively blocked legislation that would set some of Martinez’s education initiatives into law.

Gridlocked debate on education policy in the Legislature has caused bipartisan state budget proposals to crash. And efforts to confirm Skandera, Martinez’s education secretary-designate, have resulted in days of committee hearings but still no vote by the full state Senate.

After efforts to establish a teacher evaluation system failed to get through the Legislature, the Martinez administration looked to executive regulation to create the controversial program.

On third-grade retention efforts, Martinez has backed legislation each year in office and has pledged to continue doing so.

Democratic lawmakers say Martinez’s circumventing of the Legislature to adopt her evaluation program shows that the governor isn’t open to considering opposing views.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said the governor has not met with her since Stewart took the helm of the House Education Committee in 2013. “They no longer bring us in,” Stewart said. “They don’t want to hear about it.”

The repeated failure of several Martinez education initiatives in the House and Senate over the past four years made it clear they lacked enough support from majority Democrats to pass. But Martinez’s campaign spokesman Sanchez, responding to Stewart’s criticism, said the governor’s education initiatives are “supported in a bipartisan manner.”

King said his experience as a former House representative means he would bring a more collaborative approach to working with the Legislature to address problems in the state’s education system.

“What I bring to the table that’s different from past governors, from this governor, is the ability to sit down and work with the Legislature,” King said, “to recognize the problems that we do have and move forward.”