Many New Mexico children have either just started their school year or are preparing to start soon. This month students will prepare for school, new books, new teachers and their respective dirty looks.
The state Public Education Department (PED) rates schools with an A-F grading system to identify which ones need improvement—and schools with persistently low grades could experience major overhauls. That’s causing alarm among some teachers, especially in rural communities. This week the US Education Department officially accepted New Mexico’s education plan, which is required under a 2015 federal law—and includes provisions that could shut down or revamp schools in remote areas where schools are scarce to begin with.
Public school advocates and teachers unions routinely criticized former Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera for her policies regarding teacher evaluations and school grading. Now, Skandera’s replacement, acting Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski has his own plan to intervene with underperforming schools. Buried in the state’s education plan, which is tied to federal funding, are four possible outcomes for underperforming schools. These include adding more state charter schools, encouraging a voucher program or even shutting down public schools.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by former President Barack Obama in 2015, replaced the George W. Bush-backed No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. Where NCLB set a national standard for dealing with underperforming schools, ESSA allows states to come up with their own corrective action plans. Betty Patterson, the president of the state chapter of the National Education Association (NEA), said the state PED wields too much control under the state’s ESSA plan. Patterson told NM Political Report the state agency should allow local school districts to make more decisions.
“Our PED feels like ‘local control’ means the state,” Patterson said.
Many critics of the state’s proposal, including Patterson, point to a section that outlines how the state plans to deal with chronically underperforming schools. The plan offers four possible “more rigorous interventions” for schools in need of comprehensive support and improvement (CSI). After three consecutive years of underperformance, the state can close a school, restart it as a charter school or restaff the school with only teachers with high evaluation scores. Districts could also come up with an action plan that incorporates any of the first three options. The state’s new ESSA plan identifies CSI schools as those graded in the lowest 5 percent statewide, high schools with graduation rates lower than 67 percent and schools that were previously identified as needing intervention.
The state’s ESSA proposal states that PED “will require more rigorous interventions” of schools that have not improved within three years. When asked for clarification, a PED spokeswoman said she would reach out to the “right folks.” Despite several follow-up emails and phone calls, PED did not clarify when CSI schools could see significant changes.
The ESSA proposal does offer a timeline of implementation. According to the proposal, CSI schools will be identified after school grades are released this fall. Districts are expected to submit plans for their underperforming schools by April. By May or June 2018, the state could begin its intervention plans.
The ESSA proposal does not explain how the transition from a public school to a charter school would occur, nor what students and teachers would do if a school closes.
Yazmin Izquierdo, president of NEA-Lovington and a fifth-grade dual language teacher, said it would be too complicated to shut down schools in her district. Each elementary school in Lovington is devoted to just one or two grades. Izquierdo teaches at one of Lovington’s five elementary schools, Yarbro Elementary, which raised its grade from a D to an A between 2014 and 2016. Other Lovington schools include a sixth-grade academy seperate from the district’s middle school and a freshman academy separate from its three high schools.
Izquierdo said she expects PED to convert failing schools to charter schools in an attempt to privatize schools, something she and many other union members oppose.
“A child is not a material,” Izquierdo said, and schools shouldn’t be run as businesses.
Neither Skandera nor Ruszkowski have said they intended to privatize the state’s school system.
Other rural districts could face even more drastic changes if underperforming schools are shut down. The small town of Carrizozo for example, has only three schools—an elementary, middle and high school. Its middle school has received two D grades and one F between 2014 and 2016. The closest district to Carrizozo is about 20 miles away in Capitan, where the middle school received a C, an F and a D for the past three years.
Patterson said she thinks much of the ESSA plan is “pie in the sky” without sufficient funding. For example, Patterson said, there may not be enough money to pay for teacher development or the restructuring of schools. Patterson added that the state’s plan does not take into account the diverse small communities that cover much of New Mexico. “There’s got to be other ideas,” Patterson said.