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House, Senate far apart on education reform

SANTA FE – The House and the Senate have different ideas for education in New Mexico, and one of the key questions over the last week of the session will be where – if anywhere – they find common ground.

During the first part of this 60-day legislative session, which ends March 21, the Republican-led House has passed bills that have the backing of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez – such as HB 41, the “third-grade retention” bill that would mandate schools hold back third-graders who score poorly on the state’s standardized test.

A02_jd_13mar_xgr-ed-billsMeanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Senate has passed or is considering bills that would roll back some of the governor’s education initiatives – such as SB 138, which would eliminate state-issued school grades.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said Thursday that they had doubts about whether the two chambers would find much agreement on education this year.

Republicans have accused Senate Democrats of blocking several key education bills.

“All the education bills have hit the ‘Senate wall’ was the phrase they used,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, referring to a Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce newsletter criticizing the Senate.

“I think it’s a fair assessment,” Roch said.

Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera said Thursday that the Senate was stalling on important bills, like the third-grade retention bill or HB 117, which would strip habitually truant students of their driver’s licences.

Senate committees will hear those bills and plenty others over the next week, said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, who chairs the Senate Public Affairs Committee.

The Public Affairs and Senate Education Committee are the two committees where most of the House education bills have been assigned.

And it is not as if the House and the governor won’t obstruct Senate-backed legislation that conflicts with their policy goals, Ortiz y Pino said.

“This is not a year where we’re going to get any of our vision for education reform,” he said. “If it miraculously got through the House, it would get vetoed (by the governor).”

Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, chairman of the Education Committee, said senators won’t be dismissing the House’s education bills out of hand, but they will try to create compromises aimed at fixing what they consider flawed bills.

For example, Sapien said he’s worked with Republican colleagues on a retention bill that would give parents more say over whether to hold back a student.

There are some education bills lawmakers say they believe have a chance of passing this year.

Sapien said he retains at least some hope for his bill SB 205, which would delay the use of test scores in teacher and school ratings for two years as New Mexico adapts to a new standardized test. This is the first year New Mexico students have taken the new PARCC exam.

“It doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” Sapien said of the bill, which has passed the Senate, and is contending it doesn’t dismantle the state’s teacher evaluation system or school grading system. The bill is headed for the Senate floor.

For his part, Roch said he is hopeful for HB 144, a bill that would reduce the weight given to test scores in teacher and school ratings from 50 percent to 40 percent.

The bill, which passed the House this week, has some bipartisan support, as well as some opposition. Neither Skandera nor teachers unions support the bill.

Roch said HB 146 is another bill he believes might make it through the session. The bill, sponsored by Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, would give school districts more local control over the textbooks and educational materials they buy.

The bill stands a decent chance because it doesn’t address testing, or teacher or school ratings, which have been the biggest sources of controversy in education in New Mexico of late, Roch said.