Lawmakers push for education reforms

Less than two weeks into this year’s session, Democratic lawmakers already are attacking many of Gov. Susana Martinez’s education reform policies, including the teacher evaluation system, school grades and even the office of education secretary itself.

State Sen. Michael Padilla

State Sen. Michael Padilla

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, the majority whip, said he believes his colleagues feel “emboldened” by the shift in power from last year’s election in which Democrats regained control of the state House and boosted their majority in the Senate.

“There are a lot of issues that I think folks have been working on for a while, and with the change in the composition (of the Legislature), I think that will really lend itself to getting some of this work done,” he told the Journal.

Padilla has introduced a number of bills that would reshape the educational landscape for New Mexico, arguing that it is time for dramatic change to pull the state out of 49th place on nearly every measure of student success.

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One of his proposals calls for an elected state board of education to replace the education secretary position held by Hanna Skandera, who was appointed in 2011. Another would create a statewide department of early childhood education, which would be the only one of its kind in the country.

“We should try new things,” Padilla said. “The status quo isn’t working for us. That’s why you see the filing of all these pieces of legislation.”

Gov. Susana Martinez

Gov. Susana Martinez

Martinez agrees the status quo is not working and has been battling for specific reforms, many of which she was able to implement without legislative approval. She argues those policies are improving outcomes, pointing to recent statistics like the record 2016 graduation rate and a dramatic increase in the number of high school students tackling rigorous advanced placement exams.

Earlier this month, during a news conference to celebrate the 71 percent graduation rate, she said New Mexico’s Public Education Department has raised the bar, and kids are meeting the challenge.

“We are not going to keep it low with low expectations,” she said. “We are going to raise it and have high expectations.”

One of her most controversial policies is basing up to 50 percent of teacher evaluations on student testing results.

Now, Martinez said, it is time to take reform “a step further” by “ending the failed practice of moving our kids from one grade to the next when they simply cannot read.”

That plan, which calls for some third-graders to be held back if they can’t meet reading proficiency benchmarks, has been introduced at the Legislature throughout her administration but never made it into law.

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Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, has brought it back for another push during the current session, which began Jan. 17 and runs through March 18.

“You are four times more likely not to graduate if you go from the third grade to the fourth without being able to read,” Martinez said. “We don’t want to hold them (students) back; we want to make sure they are prepared to move forward.”

Here’s a closer look at some of the education bills generating debate.

  • THIRD-GRADE RETENTION

Sponsors : Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque

Modeled after a system developed under former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the bill calls for third-graders to be held back if they are not proficient readers.

There are exemptions for students who have disabilities, speak English as a second language, test well in other subjects or already have been held back in an earlier grade.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have used some form of third-grade retention.

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Opponents contend that the practice separates children from their social groups and has not been proven to create lasting academic improvement.

  • EARLY EDUCATION DEPARTMENT

Sponsors : Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque

A secretary of early education would oversee the new cabinet-level department, which would centralize services currently offered through the Human Services Department, Public Education Department and the Children, Youth and Families Department.

Padilla told the Journal he envisions greater efficiency and consistency for the care of children up to age 5, as well as pregnant women.

“It’s going to line up the trains the right way,” he said. “This department will focus early education under one cabinet head. This will be a first in the nation program. It’s a big, bold move for us.”

PED spokesman Robert McEntyre said he opposes Padilla’s proposal because the three agencies are already working well together.

  • CHARTER SCHOOL MORATORIUM

Sponsor : Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque

With lawmakers questioning the funding formula for charter schools, Trujillo is seeking a 2½-year freeze on new charters to run from June 1, 2017, to Jan. 1, 2020.

Trujillo has said she is not opposed to charter schools but worries that they are taking money away from traditional public schools. Charter opponents also argue that a number of low-quality schools offer a poor education, earning F’s year after year.

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Skandera has said a moratorium is extreme and inappropriate because it limits parents’ options for their children.

  • STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION

Sponsor : Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque

Padilla hopes to get rid of the education secretary job and replace it with a 10-member state board of education – a system that was in place for many years.

In 2002, voters amended the New Mexico Constitution to create the secretary position; now Padilla wants to go back to them to revive the elected board model, arguing that it brings “management closer to home.”

  • ATTENDANCE AND TEACHER EVALUATIONS

Sponsor : Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, and Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho

The two Rio Rancho Republicans would like teachers to be able to take all of the sick leave in their contracts without losing points on their evaluations. Under the current system, attendance counts for 10 points out of 200, or 5 percent of the total.

The Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education endorsed the bill earlier this month.

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Currently, teachers are penalized if they are absent for more than three days, though they can lose all the attendance points and still be rated “exemplary.”

  • NEW STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT FORMULA

Sponsor : Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque

In conjunction with the New Mexico Center for School Leadership, Padilla is advocating for an “alternative assessment model” that goes beyond standardized test scores.

For instance, students could submit portfolios or final projects, which would be weighed along with their exam results.

That data would be used to calculate school and district grades and teachers evaluations – replacing the current “student achievement” measure, which is comprised of scores from standardized tests like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC.

Currently, student achievement makes up half of a teacher’s evaluation, in most cases, with measures like classroom observation and parent surveys comprising the other half.

Padilla claims traditional tests are limited because they can’t capture talent in other areas like art or music.

  • PRE-K FUNDING

Sponsor : Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque

For the sixth year, Democratic lawmakers are seeking a constitutional amendment to support early childhood education by tapping the Land Grant Permanent Fund.

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The plan would invest 1 percent of the $15 billion fund’s growth to help 78,000 New Mexico kids who lack high-quality childcare.

During a recent press conference, Maestas and Martinez said they believe the amendment could advance this year because over 40 organizations have endorsed it, including both of New Mexico’s teachers unions.

Martinez opposes the push to tap the permanent fund, calling it financially irresponsible.

  • ALBUQUERQUE PUBLIC SCHOOLS BREAKUP

Sponsor : Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, and Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque

Under the bill, APS, the 34th largest district in the nation, would be divided into three pieces to increase accountability to the public.

Currently, the district has roughly 85,000 students and 12,000 employees in 141 schools scattered across nearly 1,200 square miles.

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