On the Education Front: Moving Front and Center, But Wounded From the Fight

February 17th, 2014 · No Comments · Education, NM Legislature

By Denise Tessier

Education policy got the play it deserved in the Sunday morning Journal, at the top of the front page. “Education policy in focus at Roundhouse” no doubt was pushed over the top in terms of placement by the newsworthy coming together outside the Capitol Roundhouse of several hundred teachers and parents demonstrating against the governor’s education initiatives as legislators debated those initiatives inside.

Photographs of the demonstrators – carrying signs with messages like “Give Education Back to the People”– helped make clear this is an issue of great importance to great numbers of people in New Mexico. Coverage of the protestors – estimated at between 800 and 2,000 in number — was combined in the three-bylined story with reportage on the actions of a House committee debating the governor’s education initiatives and Gov. Susana Martinez’s same-day press conference in Albuquerque, at which she was complaining the Legislature was ignoring those initiatives.

It was a kind of perfect storm that could not be ignored. And to the Journal’s credit, with three reporters covering the three aspects of the story and a photographer at the rally, it was given proper play.

This is not to say the Journal has been ignoring the education controversy.  It has consistently reported on the friction that has arisen since Martinez hired an out-of-state non-educator to head New Mexico’s Public Education Department, a secretary-designate who still (as of this posting) had not been confirmed by the state Senate since her nomination in December 2010 and whose position was even proposed for elimination by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday (Feb. 12).

Normally the education story and its placement would be unworthy of comment; it is illustrative of a newspaper doing its job. Yet the front-page coverage Sunday — and its prominence in terms of space given in both text and photographs — stands out because it reflects in a nutshell where education policy stands at this point.

It illustrates that citizens and educators – individually and through their legislators – have been unhappy with the administration’s reform proposals and suspicious of motives behind them. And while news stories have run about this, this news narrative has been diluted in the Journal by polemical guest columns and Journal editorials themselves, which until recently seemed almost unquestionably to take the side of the governor and her PED chief, despite the administration’s polarizing top-down approach to education.

And the Journal has given Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera a forum with a monthly guest column on the Education page. The column Feb. 4, “Targeted spending the answer” (“Targeted spending focuses on results” on the online version), ran the same day the Journal’s front page carried, “Dems reject governor’s school spending plan.” The former was an obvious attempt at influence, which displayed lack of touch with the grassroots sentiment in the state.

New Mexico’s education spending cuts since 2008 are among the deepest in the nation, former Journal education reporter Hayley Heinz reported last September. Yet, as Heinz’s story pointed out, Skandera maintains that below-the-line funding improves accountability, ostensibly because money is spent on specific programs instead of being funneled to school districts that would spend at their discretion.

This polarization on the issue, and the repeated rhetoric and polemic that fuel it, then tend to obfuscate news we can use, such as reports that say in order to improve child health and education outcomes, New Mexico must deal first with poverty, as was the gist of a report released by New Mexico Voices for Children.

As an aside, it was also interesting to see that, after Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks was reprimanded by the APS Board for tweeting inappropriate-for-his-position comments about Skandera, the Journal replaced his regular guest column on the Education page with a rotating roster of guest columnists, including university presidents. But the first one to run in Brooks’ regular slot was a column by Skandera. The Jan. 7 column was entitled, “Reform is worth some discomfort” (“Reform is worth discomfort” online).

A scathing response to that column ran in the online New Mexico Mercury, written by a self-described educator and “activist against corporate education reform”, Kris Nielsen, who wrote:

I suggest that discomfort isn’t the problem; what we’re fighting against is the actual damage being done. . . .

I won’t respond to the first half of Skandera’s editorial, since it mostly cherry-picks test data that she cites to point to her victory.  I will speak to the following statement she made toward the end of the data-worship:

“…as long as everyone can agree the primary goal is to improve student achievement, there is no reform that should be dismissed.”

First of all, we don’t all agree that “student achievement” should be the primary goal; we believe that student personal growth and student success are the primary goals of a public education, and not in terms of only test scores.  “Achievement” is a word that has changed meanings in order to make it sound as though more and more testing can actually make kids learn more.  It can’t.  It doesn’t.  Skandera uses student test scores for one purpose only: to make sure that teachers are teaching to her tests.

(Just as scathing, if not more so, are the comments on the Journal web site at the end of Skandera’s article, mostly from teachers, but also from one very fed-up student, whose comment I will include at the end of this post.)

The aforementioned second column by Skandera, “Targeted spending the answer,” also received its share of negative comments on the Journal’s website, including this one from APS Board Vice President Kathy Korte:

Bureaucracy is growing, Skandera: in your office and out-of-state contracts. The extra Ed money you cite is not going to our kids’ classrooms. So nice the Journal gives you a platform each month to spew more politics and misinformation.

More than one commenter complained that New Mexico’s education funding is going out of state to private companies and testing firms, rather than to students.

In this morning’s Journal story reporting that Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, promised to entertain a vote on Skandera’s confirmation today, APS Board President Marty Esquivel was quoted as saying Skandera should be confirmed and given “a fair opportunity to work through our differences.” From reporter Dan Boyd’s story:

“In my 35 years of following government and politics in New Mexico, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a government official – either Democrat or Republican – treated with so much undeserved contempt,” Esquivel said.

“Many of the more personal attacks on Ms. Skandera are bothersome to me because they begin from a premise that she is intent on hurting children rather than helping them. I find that ludicrous,” Esquivel wrote.

Skandera’s perceived “intent” is what arguably got her off to a poor start at the outset. Rather than intending to hurt children, that perceived intent has been that she is serving an out-of-state agenda, beginning with her promotion of the “Florida plan” (she had previously worked with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush) and buttressed by her hiring — at a cost of $152,000 — eight out-of-state consultants, most of whom were policy wonks or communicators with no classroom experience, to give her advice on reforming education in New Mexico.

Journal editorials supported Skandera and the “Florida plan.”

Those behind this out-of-state-agenda are clearly outlined in a wealth-of-information piece by New Mexico Mercury Publisher Benito Aragon, “The Invasion of Corporate Education Reform.”

That article included an eye-opening quick view of the matrix of corporate influence, including that of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Koch brothers, on New Mexico education reform – and Skandera in particular – in the form of this flow chart.

Regardless of Skandera’s status in terms of Senate confirmation, she has been acting as education secretary for a full three years. Many educators and parents (and legislators) say damage has already been done.

As promised, here is the comment from Los Alamos High School student Emma Lathrop, posted at the bottom of Skandera’s column:

Ms. Skandera, I am already learning from your “reformed” educational system. As a student here in New Mexico, and one of those who your plans are supposed to benefit, here is what your policies have taught me:
•I learned that I mean nothing more to my state than a test score, and how well I perform on one of these tests will soon dictate how much my teachers get paid.
•I learned that I should try and get the best teachers I can while I can. Good teachers are quitting because they are worn out and tired of being forced to comply with a direction in education that compromises their professional and educational beliefs.
•I learned that this “reform” is not geared towards helping students, but rather the pockets of corporate testing companies.
•I learned that I should not become a teacher because it would mean entering a career where I would not be treated as a professional, I would have to teach to a test, I would be overworked, and I would be underpaid.
•I learned that I am lucky to be graduating this year because it means that I will be narrowly escaping a new education system that sucks the joy out of learning and focuses on redundant and repetitive testing that unnecessarily stresses students and teachers.
But most importantly, I learned to stand up for what I believe in and to take action against the injustices and wrong-doings that your PED has created.
So, I thank you, designee Skandera, for all that you have taught me.

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