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Why so little attention when so much is at stake?

Public service is not easy. It is certainly not for the faint of heart.

It is one of many lessons learned during my eight-year tenure on the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education.

I’ve decided to not seek a third term so I can spend more time with my children and law practice. But, as we approach an off-the-radar, Feb. 3 school board election, we must remind ourselves that the way we involve and express ourselves goes a long way in ensuring our success as a community.

APS school board elections are always met with apathy. The irony is that most everyone I know has an opinion on public education, yet on average only 3 percent of our electorate votes in the board elections. That number is abysmal.

We must ask ourselves why the governance of our most important public institution gets so little voter attention when there is so much at stake.

One explanation is that people have become frustrated with the divisiveness and tone of the public education debate.

If you’ve been a present or former parent, employee or student of APS, then you’ve experienced varying degrees of success and failure. The mere mention of a faceless APS bureaucracy can invoke disdain – no matter where you are on the political spectrum. However, such broad generalizations about APS aren’t fair.

I’ve seen phenomenally great educators within APS. This includes a former seventh-grade teacher at Jefferson Middle School who provided meaningful encouragement for my daughter in a time of need. He’s now a promising young middle school principal in a position of great influence. It’s impossible to measure, on paper, his invaluable gift of making kids feel more secure as they enter adolescence.

I’ve marveled at an excellent math teacher who doubles as the swim coach at Albuquerque High. Not only does he take phone calls from his students late into the night about homework problems, he takes the same calls from them when they’re in college. There are many teachers like him. It is humbling.

And it goes without saying, teachers, like lawyers or any other profession, are not perfect a whole. We need to better appreciate our teachers. Yet, we should not hesitate to raise legitimate concerns about a small percentage that aren’t cutting it. We need to figure out a better way to improve their performance or more decisively take action to remove them. Too often, we shuffle them off to a different school without addressing the problem.

With concerns about our schools also comes the hot button issue of standardized testing. It’s a legitimate point of concern.

Testing has always been a fact of life in our schools. The most poignant issue is how schools can fairly and accurately measure students’ achievement to make sure there is sufficient progress.

But I also wonder about a stunning lack of concern for students who go to college only to end up failing because of insufficient academic skills. Only one in five New Mexico university students who take a remedial class because of low ACT scores will graduate from college. Students who must take two or more remedial classes are even more doomed to fail. No, the ACT is not the end all, but we can’t turn our heads to the fact that it’s a time-proven indicator of college readiness.

More attention needs to be paid to whether we are doing enough to prepare our graduating students for college or the life ahead of them. We also need to be mindful of the downplayed role poverty plays in student achievement.

Gov. Susanna Martinez, Education Secretary Hanna Skandera and Albuquerque Public Schools have decided to pursue a dialogue to address the challenging issues of testing and accountability. It’s an important step.

It is vital that both sides of the discussion, as well as the Legislature, set an example by finding common ground. In the end, we need to respect differences without accusations, acrimony and hyperbole (on both ends) that often rears its ugly head.

In the end, civility and progress will draw more people to vote in school board elections. It will certainly make us better for trying.