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Third-grade retention bill derailed — again — in Senate committee

SANTA FE – New year, same result.

A push for legislation aimed at ending the practice of “social promotion” in New Mexico public schools was derailed Monday in its first assigned Senate committee.

The House-approved bill was tabled on a 6-3 vote in the Senate Education Committee, as Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, joined with the five Democrats who sit on the committee in voting to table the measure.

Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, the committee’s chairman, questioned whether the legislation represented an unfunded mandate and said other states that have enacted similar laws – specifically Oklahoma and Florida – have recently relaxed or paused their reading requirements.

“They’re finding that this thing is not working like they thought it would,” Sapien said.

Gov. Susana Martinez has pushed since taking office in 2011 for legislation that would end social promotion, by providing reading assistance to struggling students and making third-graders who cannot read proficiently repeat the grade level.

In a Monday statement, a spokesman for the two-term Republican governor said Martinez will not give up in her effort to enact the legislation.

“We are disappointed that once again the Senate Democrats have chosen to play political games instead of confronting reality,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said.

This year’s bill, House Bill 67, passed the GOP-controlled House on a largely party-line 36-27 vote on Jan. 29.

However, it faced long odds from the beginning in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where similar measures have stalled in recent years’ legislative sessions.

Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, insisted during Monday’s hearing that the legislation is more focused on reading intervention than mandatory retention.

“When (students) hit third grade, they shouldn’t have to be retained,” Youngblood said.

But Kernan, who supported the legislation in previous legislative sessions, said she could not overlook the retention provision.

Specifically, she called it unfair to base retention on a student’s score on a single standardized reading assessment, a state-sponsored test called the New Mexico Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers – or PARCC.

“With that piece, it’s really hard for me to support it,” Kernan said.

Although backers could attempt to revive it, Monday’s vote means the bill is likely dead for this year’s 30-day legislative session.