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Case against teacher evals moves forward

SANTA FE – A New Mexico teachers union’s attempt to have the state’s teacher evaluation system struck down is still alive after a Santa Fe district judge rejected the Public Education Department’s request to have the case dismissed.

In rejecting the agency’s attempt to have the lawsuit tossed, 1st Judicial District Judge Francis Mathew said the case should move forward, though he did not weigh in on its specific merits.

The attorney for the National Education Association-New Mexico, which filed the lawsuit last year, said in court Tuesday that Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera overstepped her legal authority in implementing the evaluation system, while also arguing that educators around the state have been negatively affected by ratings they’ve received.

“(Skandera) can’t have this plan as her fiefdom that she can change and modify as she wishes,” said lawyer Todd Wertheim of Santa Fe, who is representing the NEA in the case.

However, a Public Education Department spokesman said after Tuesday’s ruling that the agency stands behind the evaluation system, describing it as an “important tool” for identifying the state’s best teachers.

“Like other frivolous attempts from the unions, this lawsuit is an unfortunate and costly distraction as thousands of New Mexico’s kids head back to school,” PED spokesman Robert McEntyre said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that these special interests would rather turn back to an evaluation system that simply rated 99 percent of our teachers as ‘meeting competency,’ while less than half of our students were proficient in reading and math.”

Although the teachers union has disputed the accuracy of the 99 percent claim, several previous legal challenges to the evaluation system have been unsuccessful.

Most recently, the state Court of Appeals in April upheld an Albuquerque district judge’s denial of a petition filed by a different teachers union and three Democratic state lawmakers that had sought to halt the teacher evaluations.

During Tuesday’s hearing, an attorney representing the education department said the most recent case should be dismissed in light of the Court of Appeals ruling, claiming Skandera’s authority to enact the evaluation system has been established.

The plaintiffs in the case are state Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, and two educators – Manessa Young Padilla of Los Lunas and Deborah Romero of Las Cruces. Romero told reporters she was thankful the case would proceed, saying, “We want bureaucracy out of our way – we want to do our jobs for our students.”

The teacher evaluations – released for the first time in 2014 and for a second round in May – use student test scores, observation by principals and other factors to rate the roughly 23,000 New Mexico educators. Teachers are then designated as falling into one of five categories, based on their effectiveness.

Last week, Skandera announced several changes to the evaluation system, including a directive that student test data no longer be used in the evaluations of first-year teachers.

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