Alibi V.28 No.4 • Jan 24-30, 2019 

Education

Views from the Bridge

A tale of two visions

Glenna Voigt
Glenna Voigt, Commissioner on the state Public Education Commission
Eric Williams Photography
As the debate about public education reform roars away at this year’s 60-day legislative section, there are certainly a plethora of viewpoints—not only about the structure of reform but also its direction and scope—that are becoming clear.

Educators and lawmakers—long disappointed in the policies of the Martinez administration—are coming out of the woodwork to greet a Legislature primed to change the tree called public education in New Mexico from the roots down below to the leaves up above.

The variety of issues that are bound to come up whilst processing the placement and manifestation of excellent public education in this state are complex, sometimes diffuse, as they overlap areas of greater concern such as the economy, poverty and public health.

Certainly, one of the issues to come up during this year’s 60-day session will revolve around the value and efficacy of charter schools—and their place in the public education milieu.

In order to make sense of of this harvest of ideas, proposals and possible future paths—including those within the scope of the orbit described above—Weekly Alibi spoke to two experts in the field of public education, Glenna Voigt, a Commissioner on the state Public Education Commission, and Barbara Petersen, a member of the Albuquerque Public Schools school board.

Both veterans of the public education culture in the state, these two nationally recognized educators sometimes portrayed contrary visions when we spoke to them this week at our offices.

And each of these education advocates visited Alibi HQ and engaged a member of our editorial board (that’s me) in a conversation about education and education reform in New Mexico.

Their differences mark a dynamic that is sure to see debate at this year’s legislative session and although their beliefs on the state of education and its directionality in this state are sometimes markedly different, they both reflect a deep commitment to the public school students in this state and an overriding concern for the future of public education in the Land of Enchantment.

Voigt visited our offices on Friday morning. Petersen met with Weekly Alibi early on Monday, a day which happens to be a school holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Glenna Voigt is the state Public Education Commissioner for District 3 (central Albuquerque) and the recently retired, founding Principal of the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School, the first state-authorized charter school—and a model for success as far as the charter high school model is concerned. She has over 20 years of experience in public education and believes that students’ voices are instrumental in reforming educational policies.

Barbara Petersen, meanwhile, is the APS Board member for a local district that encompasses much of the southeast Heights. Petersen has 40 years of teaching and administrative experience, is the former Political Outreach Coordinator for the Albuquerque Teachers Federation and has long been a proponent of raising reading standards for early childhood education.

Here then, are the notes and quotes that came from those distinctly different yet cohesively pro-education interactions those two education leaders had with News Editor August March.

Glenna Voigt was recently elected to be a State Public Education Commissioner. She had her first meeting last week, as a matter of fact. She’s tasked with overseeing charter schools as well as a long-term federal grant that helps pay for career and technical education in the public schools, the Carl Perkins Grant.

Voigt is an advocate for public charter schools, and believes that, because of their size, such institutions provide necessary access to education for students who she identifies as “those who’ve fallen between the cracks.” These types of schools, she continues, “provide a more innovative curriculum” because they focus on career and technical education.

According to Voigt, charter schools in New Mexico provide at least 16 distinct career pathways for students to explore. “Studies like business management, architecture, construction, all sorts of STEM stuff, media and film” are all made more accessible because of charter schools, the Commissioner passionately believes.

Barbar Peterson
Barbara Petersen, member of the Albuquerque Public Schools school board
Eric Williams Photography

Ultimately Voigt is convinced that charter schools can invoke change immediately, something she says is not possible in bigger districts. “If a teacher has a great idea, [the school can say] then, let’s give it a try. But in a large district, one has to look at data, best practices, look at what’s been tried; it takes a lot more shift to make things happen. The independent governance of charter schools adds to this quick ability to innovate and transform, Voigt concludes.

Petersen’s view on the place of charter schools’ in the public education milieu offers stark contrast to several of Voigt’s basic contentions; her 35-year tenure on the faculty of Valle Vista Elementary has informed her vision of what public education can be, she says by way of introduction.

One of Petersen’s great accomplishments has been in finding success for the reading recovery program, an educational service designed to provide intervention for struggling first grade readers.

One of the big problems, according to Petersen is an issue that has “undermined the public system of education”—privatizing public education. The phenomena of using public monies to pay for private and charter schools is problematic, she believes.

Does the seasoned APS vet feel like charter schools and private schools with state funding behind them are a distraction from the mission of public education? There are too many issues, many related to finances and accountability to see it otherwise, Petersen argues.

Contrariwise, Voigt’s core belief—and the perfect justification for charter schools—is that the state is not taking individual student educational outcomes into account, and that’s the real problem.

As evidence of the not-so-good relationship between the values represented by privatization versus those intrinsic to government-run education systems: “Two of the biggest, most vocal anti-bond issue folks being vocal right now are on the board of a for-profit owned by Pearson Education.” Pearson Education is the name of the global corporation from whence the notorious PARCC test originated, Petersen reminds me before we move on to other subjects.

One factor uniting these two lifelong educators is the current legislative session itself, happening at a time when change is becoming a swelling wave whose outcome has not yet been gauged. This sea change, of course, includes some rumination about testing in the public schools.

“There’s going to be a big settling of dust with the new administration,” Voigt intones, drying up my watery metaphor in the process. “I’m very excited to see what will settle,” she says with a wizened grin about changes she hopes to steward.

On the subject of testing, both educators are closer to consensus. Voigt is certain that until this session, “a lot of reform hasn’t really been reform. It’s just been doing the same thing, producing the same outcomes, but maybe using a different standardized test.” The state Commissioner hopes that experiential performance assessments or internships will provide a middle ground for accurate student evaluation.

Petersen’s view is more complex but echoes the unhappiness—on many levels—with the testing process itself. The Albuquerque Teacher’s Federation has long been opposed to PARCC and Petersen echos this sentiment and then some. “This huge emphasis on standardized tests, on grading teachers, grading schools, wanting to flunk students based on the results of one high-stakes test—if any one test was used for the same purposes I’d take issue with it—what it does is create a narrative. The narrative goes like this: ‘Did you know your school is failing?’ ”

Voigt chimed in on the testing subject later in our meeting, asserting that test scores should never be used to shame a school or a teacher. It’s good to see such alignments because they almost certainly mean progress away from a troubled system—a chore that newly elected officials seem ready to finally approach proactively.

Another point at which both of these differently skewed visions converge is on an understanding of the underlying issues. Petersen understands that one of the reasons our schools are failing is because the children who attend them “are living in perpetual poverty, they’re hungry; 25 percent of them are just learning English. They’re wonderful, brilliant kids and it’s to our advantage to educate them,” she truly believes.

Voigt’s on board with that assessment too, telling Weekly Alibi that early childhood education is crucial to stopping the perennial poverty process. “Children will learn social and emotional skills that will augment their day-to-day experiences.” Skills that involve communication and cooperation, once mastered by young children, set the stage for positive educational outcomes later in life and in fact help ameliorate socioeconomic disparity and thus endemic poverty.

Despite the differences Glenna Voigt and Barbara Petersen showed on tape, they are clearly committed to taking public education in this state from its number 48 ranking up to more respectable levels. When asked how such progress is going to play out at this year’s roundhouse circus, the APS board member said, “We are in a perfect point for education reform. We know more about how kids learn than at any time before in history. The knowledge base is phenomenal. On top of that, we have a governor and a Legislature that are ready to say that our goal is to support. Let’s be honest about what the needs in the public schools are. The point is to invest in support and continue to vote.”

Voigt’s conclusion at the end of our meeting was compellingly similar to Petersen’s. She finished up by commenting broadly that, “There needs to be more options for students and parents, it’s the fit factor. When students really find something that will tap into their passion, we will see educational success. There are many more schools that are offering innovative programs, not just charter schools. That results in empowered students, students who vote for their future.”