Setting the Record Straight on Hanna Skandera

March 8th, 2013 · 2 Comments · Education, NM Legislature, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

The Albuquerque Journal finally ran a “For the Record” Friday (March 8) correcting two mistakes that were made in its editorial of a full week before (March 1). The editorial’s topic: support for confirmation of Hanna Skandera.

The correction says the editorial,  “Skandera has earned New Mexico’s support,” was wrong in saying Skandera had been acting as education secretary three years (it’s been two years, two months). But the more egregious mistake corrected was the editorial’s claim that the Albuquerque Teachers Federation had handed out gift cards to get teachers to appear at Skandera’s confirmation hearing in Santa Fe.

Both the newsprint “For the Record” and the one that showed up Friday atop the online version of the editorial said:

A March 1 Journal editorial incorrectly stated that the Albuquerque Teachers Federation was handing out gift cards to members who show at Hanna Skandera’s confirmation hearing. In fact, the AFT said in an email blasting the secretary-designate that it would enter members in a gift card drawing if they worked a phone bank to oppose Skandera.

That it would take so long for the Journal to publicly correct this is significant, because in the interim, the gift card mistake was picked up by Skandera’s father, who referred to it in writing Journal education reporter Hayley Heinz after Heinz’s blog post of the previous week. According to Heinz, Mr. Skandera’s message said:

The teachers present who testified against confirmation all received gift cards to be in attendance.  The citizens and former teachers who came and testified for confirmation did so without reward and substantially outnumbered those who had to be “gifted” in order to attend and testify.   . . .

Even more interesting; Heinz actually corrected the gift card rumor on her March 4 blog (four days before Friday’s official correction). In that blog post, “Skandera hearing odds and ends,” Heinz “gently” corrected the rumor, writing:

I think it’s pretty cool that Mr. Skandera is weighing in on his daughter’s behalf. But I do want to gently correct a misperception that seems to have spread far and wide: Teachers were not given gift cards to testify in Santa Fe.

She continued that:

Some folks seem to have gotten this idea from an email that was sent out to AFT/ATF members, which asked them to volunteer at the union phone bank. Those who volunteered at the phone bank were entered in a weekly drawing for a gift card. ATF President Ellen Bernstein clarified that teachers who went to Santa Fe to testify were not compensated in any way, and paid for their own food and gas.

Only those who read the Journal online, and then only those who read Heinz’s blog, would have seen her correction – and Heinz is diplomatic in leaving out any mention of the editorial page’s role in this misinformation, attributing the rumor merely to “some folks.”

Usually, Journal editorials are written (and for many years, I wrote them) using information from reporters’ stories, the facts from those stories forming the basis for the editorial’s position (in this case, that Skandera should be confirmed).  Thursday, when I had started a post on the Skandera coverage, I noticed the two mistakes in the editorial (and it did not carry a correction then), and did a search to try to trace them back to a reporter’s story, without success.

So, I’m not sure where the editorial writer got the gift card information (interestingly, a comment at the bottom of the editorial Friday morning asks the same question). The other mistake in the editorial, which says Skandera spent the “past three years traversing the state to visit every school and classroom possible to observe challenges and success stories firsthand,” should have been picked up in editing. Those following Skandera’s contentious history in New Mexico know she was appointed by Susana Martinez, who’s now just starting her third year as governor. And they know that in all that time, the Senate has not held confirmation hearings on Skandera’s appointment until now.

As Heinz’s “odds and ends” blog noted, passions are running high both for and against Skandera’s confirmation. And as of Friday, confirmation hearings remained in recess without resolution, with little more than a week remaining for the Legislature to deal with a crush of other bills and tasks.

Skandera is, as Leslie Linthicum’s UpFront column (“Hanna Skandera deserves a vote”) noted Thursday, a “lightning rod,” albeit a “friendly, peppy” one.

Linthicum didn’t venture so far to say whether Skandera should be confirmed or given the boot – her editors had already weighed in on that in the aforementioned flawed editorial and in previous editorials in support of Skandera.

But she did say Skandera deserves a Senate vote – up or down – rather than unconfirmed limbo, and Linthicum is right.

That the Senate snubbed Skandera, by failing to hold confirmation hearings until now, is a statement in itself. And if the Senate fails to take action during this session, Skandera will remain the hyphenated “secretary-designate” (or lead the Public Education Department as deputy secretary). And contention will remain tied to every decision Skandera makes.

Not that confirmation would cure that problem, however.

As Linthicum pointed out:

If you like (Skandera), she’s a breath of fresh air, a dogged innovator and exactly what this state’s stagnant education system needs to turn it around. If you don’t like her, she’s a carpet-bagging ideologue with no actual education experience who’s bent on pushing the Jeb Bush handbook.”

In her two years in New Mexico, conflicts and criticism have accompanied Skandera’s moves as secretary-designate.

Just last week, the Public Education Commission announced it will appeal in District Court Skandera’s overriding approval of PEC’s denial of two charter school applications. The proposal for one of those schools, New Mexico Connections Academy, came from Paul Gessing, who, as ABQJournalWatch readers know, is a Grover Norquist no-taxes ideologue whose “expert” opinion on all sorts of topics are published routinely by the Journal (a practice we’ve critically noted numerous times). As director of the Rio Grande Foundation, Gessing for years has promoted the Florida education model Skandera brought to New Mexico, but in reporting on Gessing’s charter proposal, Heinz wrote that “Gessing emphasized that the school is not a project of the foundation. . .”

State concerns about for-profit firms opening charters in New Mexico are serious enough that bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to ban them. In explaining her sponsorship of the House version of the ban, Rep. Mimi Stewart (a retired teacher) raised concerns about Skandera’s links to on-line school companies, notably Skandera’s affiliation with Chiefs for Change, a group that embraces the reform ideas of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. As Heinz story pointed out:

Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education favors online schools and has received funds from K-12 Inc. and Connections Academy.

Stewart said this is a conflict of interest, as the two charter denials by the Public Education Commission that Skandera recently overturned involve a K-12 Inc. charter in Farmington and Gessing’s online school, to be run by Connections Academy.

During the first Skandera confirmation hearing (March 1), testimony focused entirely on whether Skandera meets the constitutional requirement that New Mexico’s secretary of education be a “qualified, experienced educator.” While supporters said “educator” doesn’t have to be interpreted as someone who has worked in a classroom, it’s significant to note that many disagree, and the only classroom experience on Skandera’s resume involved promotion of abstinence and other “lifestyle” choices as a volunteer and then employee of the Free-to-Be abstinent peer education program, which can be viewed as more into the realm of religious ideology than education.

(Keeping religious proselytizing out of the schools is already a constant battle for school administrators. As recently as January, a Texas group was paid to give presentations in Rio Rancho schools on bullies and drugs, but their presentation segued into evening events at which students were told they were going to hell if they didn’t have Jesus in their hearts, upsetting some students and parents.)

Teachers voted “no confidence” in Skandera last year and continued to oppose her at this year’s confirmation hearing. During the session, columns by teachers have appeared in the Journal, pleading for respect and to have their concerns heard. Sharon Morgan, president of the National Education Association of New Mexico, wrote on Feb. 24 that an advisory council was created to give teachers input into the evaluation process, but that their recommendations are being ignored by Skandera’s PED, among other complaints.

Those who support Skandera (including the Journal) lament New Mexico’s perpetual low rankings in test scores and student performance, and seem to think Skandera’s reforms will “fix” the problem. Those who support Skandera are also those who have been pushing hardest for education reform – now.

Republicans, libertarians and conservatives have framed the reform debate around teachers and unions as the problem, with charters, virtual schools  and vouchers as the solution. It’s part of a decades-long attack on public education, trumpeted in the media (including the Journal, which has run years of anti-“government schools” columns by Cal Thomas).

The more difficult problem to solve is poverty’s role in student achievement. As Heinz astutely pointed out in a recent blog, Albuquerque high schools in areas of high poverty are making gains in graduation rates. (Surely teachers have had something to do with that). But she found that high schools in areas transitioning into poverty now are falling behind in those rates.

Teachers have no control over student home life, or diet, or levels of parental support (the latter for either student efforts or in terms of backing up the teacher).

Yet the reform movement continues to solve the problem by attaching a “pass/fail” label on both teacher and the schools. This morning’s lead editorial on teacher evaluations in the Journal, “House votes for status quo on teacher evals,” makes it sound like the more than $330 million spent by the state on teacher remuneration over the last 10 years was a waste because statistics are still low in terms of student reading and math skills and graduation rates.

The result of this constant blame on the schools and teachers has been that both are on the defense, which is detraction from education. A year ago, APS ran radio ads touting the successes of its high school graduates – a 1997 grad who’s now a doctor, a 2010 grad who’s now at Harvard, another who received a prestigious internship. This was good PR to counter the bad, and it shouldn’t be necessary.

Even the success in Florida was predicated on the fact that reforms were instituted at a time when budgets were flush, and millions were appropriated to pay for tutors and ensure program success. Public schools and teachers need community support. And they need funding. Yet they are constantly under attack. Meanwhile, in the background, more and more public education money goes to companies that provide reform-mandated standardized testing, textbooks, and now, for-profit charter schools.

The Journal’s editorial was correct in saying Skandera has been “on the job”, despite her lack of confirmation by the Senate, and that she’s a woman with a mission. But New Mexicans – and the Senate Rules Committee – need to decide if her mission is what New Mexico wants, and whether the dissension is too much of a distraction.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Emanuele Corso

    Thanks for this. You have said it all.

  • Roxanne Allen

    Thanks for pointing out the Gessing connection and the infiltration of for-profit schools into even the primary grades. It all makes quite a picture when the pieces are put together.

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