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‘Social Promotion’ Fate Uncertain

SANTA FE, N.M. — With just hours remaining in the 30-day legislative session, Gov. Susana Martinez’s signature education initiative for holding back third-graders who can’t read proficiently was hanging in both houses, its fate uncertain.

Pending in the House – where the Judiciary Committee was working on it late Wednesday – was a mandatory retention measure, Senate Bill 96, that the Senate has already passed.

Pending in the Senate, meanwhile, was a similar bill, House Bill 69, that the House passed earlier Wednesday on a vote of 47-23 after three hours of debate.

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With the Legislature’s adjournment coming at noon today, it was unclear whether either of the bills would clear both houses, as required for final passage.

In the House, all 33 Republicans, 13 Democrats and the House’s sole independent voted for House Bill 69. All 23 no votes were cast by Democrats.

“We’re thrilled,” said Public Education Secretary designate Hanna Skandera. She said she was “very optimistic” about the likelihood that a retention bill would get through the Legislature.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Mary Helen Garcia of Las Cruces, a retired educator and Democrat who said she had been working on the proposal even before Martinez took office last year.

Martinez and other supporters of the legislation say reading proficiently is a crucial component of success in school and that so-called social promotion must be ended.

“We’re talking about students that absolutely cannot read,” said Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell.

“It is time for this state to stop pointing fingers … and to reform. This bill is for our children,” she said.

But critics said mandatory retention is expensive and ineffective, and that studies show children who are held back are much more likely to drop out.

Under current law, parents may veto proposals to hold their children back, but only once.

House Bill 69 would require that students in kindergarten through third grade be assessed for their reading proficiency, that struggling readers be given help, and that – with certain exemptions – third-graders who still can’t read proficiently be held back on the recommendation of the teacher and principal and be given intensive remediation.

Students who weren’t proficient at the end of kindergarten, first or second grade would get intensive mediation and could be retained, but it’s not mandatory, under the legislation.

“It takes away parental choice. It has a mandatory retention in the third grade,” objected Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, also a retired educator.

Parents who didn’t want their children kept back could petition the principal for promotion – if the student had attended school 95 percent of the time, had participated in the prescribed remediation, and the parent signed a contract with a reading intervention plan for the next grade.

Critics objected that rules out students who missed 10 days of school or hadn’t fully taken part in remediation.

“This takes a group of children that are often the ones that are most at risk and at need, and says you cannot petition the principal,” Stewart said.

Senate Bill 96 did not contain a provision for parents to petition a principal to prevent a retention. But supporters said it might be easier to get that bill through the House in the remaining hours than to get House Bill 69 through the Senate.

“We’re rapidly running out of time,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, a sponsor of Senate Bill 96.