School & District Management

N.M.'s Acting Schools Chief Remains in Political Limbo

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 26, 2013 3 min read
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The New Mexico legislature has adjourned without confirming the appointment of Hanna Skandera as the state’s schools chief, apparently thrusting her into another year of official limbo.

Ms. Skandera was appointed secretary-designate by Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, in January 2011 and carries out the duties of the state’s K-12 chief. But opponents question her qualifications under the state’s constitution, as well as her association with a controversial education advocacy group. They also allege misconduct about the education department’s budget.

The regular legislative session ended March 16.

In an interview, Ms. Skandera, who has previously worked at the U.S. Department of Education and the education departments in California and Florida, said the legislature’s failure to decide on her status was an “adult-centered” fight that completely ignored students.

“This is like a circus. This looks ridiculous,” she said.

Ms. Skandera has promoted measures that some in K-12 policy circles have deemed controversial or harmful. In 2011, for example, she successfully pushed for schools in New Mexico to be graded on an A-F basis, a yardstick increasingly popular among states. In January, she decided to allow a digital school, Connections Academy, to provide virtual education. In doing so, she overruled a vote by the state’s Public Education Commission, a government body separate from the department, to bar the school.

She said in the interview that public support for her policies is running high.

“Whenever you want to create change, you’ve got to have ownership,” she said. “If legislators don’t want to own it right now, then the people will.”

At the same time, she said she’s found common ground with the National Education Association’s New Mexico affiliate, which has about 8,000 members, on the impact of data and tests on teacher evaluations. In addition, the Council of Chief State School Officers has written to the state asking that she be confirmed.

Multipronged Opposition

But New Mexico Democrats, who control both chambers of the legislature, and some of her other opponents say the state constitution makes her appointment problematic, since it requires that the education secretary be a “qualified, experienced educator.” Ms. Skandera has never taught in a K-12 classroom or worked as a school administrator, although she has taught education policy at the graduate school level at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, Calif. Ms. Skandera maintains that she meets the requirements of the constitution through her previous policy jobs.

Her opponents allege that she has not only mismanaged the New Mexico education department, but also has allowed the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an advocacy group led by former Florida GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, to control policy in the state and benefit its private-sector donors in the process. The foundation has also paid for Ms. Skandera’s travel, records revealed by her opponents show.

Ms. Skandera worked in Florida’s education department when Mr. Bush was governor there, and is a member of Chiefs for Change, an affiliate of the foundation that supports A-F school grades, charter schools, and digital learning options.

Clash of Views

Ms. Skandera said she has “absolutely no regrets” about her association with the foundation.

Some have also alleged that her office engaged in political dirty tricks by creating lists of unionized and nonunionized teachers for Ms. Martinez’s administration, a charge Ms. Skandera’s department has denied. Last year, the Albuquerque Federation of Teachers, a 3,800-member union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, declared “no confidence” in her.

Testifying before the Senate rules committee, Michael Corwin, the executive director of Independent Source PAC, a liberal watchdog group in Albuquerque that has written reports roundly condemning Ms. Skandera, highlighted what he said were instances of her department improperly favoring education companies while ignoring the concerns of Native American tribal and Hispanic leaders, among other problems.

Calling Mr. Corwin a political operative instead of an education expert, Ms. Skandera denied that she had acted improperly in any fashion with respect to outside nonprofit groups and corporations.

The top remaining item on her agenda, Ms. Skandera said, is changing state policy to ensure that students who are promoted from 3rd grade can demonstrate literacy. In the 2011 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, 80 percent of 4th graders in the state were not proficient.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Political Storm Rages as Acting N.M. Chief Presses on With Job

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