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Skandera wins Senate confirmation

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – It took four years, but the state Senate voted 22-19 Monday to confirm Hanna Skandera as New Mexico’s secretary of public education.

Five Democrats voted for Skandera, along with all Republicans.The confirmation allows Skandera to continue in the position she has held for the past four years, while also losing the “designate” tag from her title.

“I want someone who is tough, someone who is going to fight for our kids,” said Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque, speaking in favor of Skandera’s confirmation.

Skandera has been a polarizing figure since Gov. Susana Martinez picked her to head the Public Education Department and instituted several controversial educational reform policies.

In previous years, Skandera’s confirmation never made it to the Senate floor – it was always bottled up in committee. Last year, the Rules Committee spent 10 hours spread over three days hearing testimony, questioning Skandera and debating the merits of her nomination.

“I’m humbled and excited all at the same time,” Skandera said after Monday’s confirmation, and vowed to “stay the course” with regard to the policies.

The decision to install a new teacher evaluation system based largely on standardized tests through administrative rule raised the ire of teacher unions and some local school officials who say the system is a poor measure of teacher quality.

Meanwhile, others, including large segments of the business community, have said the education initiatives she has implemented are needed to improve the state’s poor rankings on education compared with other states.

Had the Senate rejected Skandera’s appointment, she would have been booted from the job immediately. However, when faced with Senate opposition, previous governors have sometimes given those nominees another title and kept them on the job.

Martinez has been a strong supporter of Skandera, and speaks out often on behalf of the reforms she and Skandera have put in place.

During a debate on the Senate floor, Democrats who opposed Skandera’s confirmation said she is not fit to be education secretary because she is not a licensed teacher.

“She was not an educator; she is not an educator,” said Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces.

They argued the state’s Constitution calls for the education secretary be a “qualified, experienced educator.”

Republicans said she is a qualified and experienced educator, even though she is not a licensed teacher. Skandera has been an education policy adviser in Florida, California, Texas and Washington, D.C.

Skandera said, “If this had been a real issue, then it should have been taken care of four years ago.”

The five Democrats who voted for Skandera’s confirmation were: Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas; Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces; Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming; Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose; and Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo.

Earlier in the day, the Senate Rules Committee approved Skandera’s confirmation 5-4.

The four Republicans on the committee approved the confirmation along with one Democrat – Sen. Clemete Sanchez, D-Grants.

But on the Senate floor, Sanchez voted against Skandera’s confirmation. He said he voted for her during the committee hearing because he wanted the full Senate to vote on the confirmation.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, recused himself from the committee and floor votes.

An attorney, Ivey-Soto, represents Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science, whose principal has been a strong supporter of Skandera’s education reform.

Rio Rancho Public Schools has sued PED in an attempt to block AIMS from opening a school in Rio Rancho. The fact that PED – and not AIMS – is named in the suit created the conflict, he said.

During the committee hearing, the chairwoman, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, gave each side – proponents and opponents – a total of 20 minutes to speak.

Those who spoke in favor of Skandera’s confirmation said that the vote was long-overdue and that the governor should have the right to pick her Cabinet members.

“While I disagree a lot with Hanna Skandera, I believe the governor has a right to pick her secretary,” said Steven Carrillo, a Santa Fe Public Schools board member, speaking on his own behalf.

Tom Burris, superintendent of Roswell Independent Schools, said he trusted in Skandera’s leadership.

Opponents said morale among teachers has dropped significantly since Skandera took office and implemented school grading and teacher evaluation systems. The drop in morale is pushing teachers out and making the occupation less attractive to college graduates, opponents said.

While the committee was debating Skandera’s confirmation Monday, two unions – the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and National Education Association New Mexico – held a rally outside the Roundhouse to voice opposition to PED policies.

About 500 people attended the rally, said Charles Goodmacher, NEA-New Mexico’s director of government relations.

AFT national President Randi Weingarten spoke at that rally and was critical of Martinez’s and Skandera’s education policies, including school grading and teacher evaluation systems. She said the policies are harmful to teachers.

“It’s clear when you have system like this it’s about ‘Gotcha,’ ” she told the Journal .

Weingarten said states should be more focused on increasing school funding, more teacher training, strengthening early childhood education and creating more community schools, which provide social services on site.

The AFT filed a lawsuit Friday to stop the evaluation system.

The union had previously filed a petition in 2013 that challenged Skandera’s authority to implement a new evaluation system by administrative rule and not through legislation. A district judge and the state Court of Appeals rejected the petition.