Los Alamos Middle School’s “D” Grade from an Education Czar

by Lisa Shin, candidate for NM House of Representatives

The Los Alamos Public Schools rank among the best in our State, if not our Nation, when it comes to student reading and math proficiency. This, of course, is the natural result of our highly skilled and educated workforce. Los Alamos has one of the country’s highest concentrations of PhDs. Our community puts a high priority on education, and it shows. So why then, did our Middle School, receive a D grade last year? At the League of Women Voters’ event earlier this month, Dr. Kurt Steinhaus explained. Even though our students demonstrated a high 83% academic proficiency, it was down from a 85% proficiency the previous year. Another school in New Mexico demonstrated a 14% proficiency, but received an “A” grade because it was up from a 7% proficiency the previous year. A school in Artesia was a National Blue Ribbon School one year, a prestigious designation for high achievement, but received a D grade.  Our Middle School’s D grade is the result of former NM Secretary of Public Education Hanna Skandera’s flawed and arbitrary system. Milan Simonich’s article, “Departing Education Secretary Gets an F” and Bill Wadt’s “A Guide to School Grades: Real or Noise” detail the problems. It was a grading system that did little to improve education for our kids and ended up being a big waste of time and money.

I fully support initiatives to ensure reading proficiency by 3rd grade. However, such legislation must include effective resources to help kids who fall behind: Summer school, teacher aides, and programs that engage parents. Skandera’s bill apparently did not.

My conversations with locals echo Simonich’s assessment: “Skandera often clashed with teachers and their unions, having installed an evaluation system that they considered punitive. Many teachers, like people in every other profession, aren’t performing at top capacity, so there’s ample room for improvement…She received a six-figure salary based on a political appointment, not for any accomplishments in classrooms.” Regrettably, Governor Martinez’ administration missed an opportunity to bring lasting and necessary reforms to our state’s education.

Former NM State Rep Vernon Kerr suggests that we return to an elected statewide board model of governance. Vernon explained to me that such a board would be accountable to their constituents, and thus, govern more closely to the people. An “Education Czar” answers only to the Governor. In fact, our State Legislature considered such a resolution last year. On February 6, 2017, the Senate Rules Committee voted 9-2 to table Senate Joint Resolution 2, a proposed constitutional amendment to create a 10-member school board. It would have been responsible to directly hire the Secretary of Public Education. Senator Ivey-Soto countered that “few people would likely run for these board seats…The level of engagement [would be] fairly low and the level of dark money [would be] very high.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is precisely the level of community and parental engagement that determines the success or failure of our schools. If parents, teachers, and students feel excluded or ignored in the educational process, they could elect board members that better reflect their ideas and goals. Citizens have a right to determine how their tax dollars are used and should have a voice in decisions that impact education.

In 2003, recall that Governor Bill Richardson strongly supported charter schools, and our 15 member State Board of Education stood in his way. Predictably, Richardson urged voters to pass a constitutional amendment which concentrated power over education policy to the Governor and effectively stripped the State Board of their “constitutional power to determine public school policy.

Those across the political spectrum, should support such a “check and balance” on our administration. We must guard against too much power in the executive branch. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”