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When It Comes to Nurturing Student Success, N.M. Ranks Last. Can It Turn Things Around?

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 21, 2020 3 min read
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Few states have gone through more dramatic changes to education policy recently than New Mexico.

When Gov. Susanna Martinez, a Republican, took over as the state’s chief executive in 2011, she brought a bold plan for public schools to the office. She sought to shrink the state education bureaucracy to get more money into classrooms, fought with state teachers’ unions over a new evaluation system, and instituted a new A-F school grading system.

Her pick to be the state schools chief, Hanna Skandera, proved controversial enough that it took about four years for her to be officially confirmed for the job. (Skandera served in an acting capacity during that time.)

In fact, Martinez referenced Quality Counts in her inaugural State of the State speech in 2011, pointing out that the report gave the state an F grade for student achievement and telling lawmakers, “Unless we take decisive action to improve our schools, history will judge us harshly, and rightfully so.”

But during the first year of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat elected in 2018, that agenda has been swept off the table and replaced with a very different philosophy. The impact of that shift remains to be seen.

The need for action remains, however. Nine years after Grisham’s predecessor promised sweeping change, that largely hasn’t translated into broad, significant improvements on key measures in Quality Counts’s Chance-for-Success Index, underscoring the challenges facing the governor and the educational system.

Struggles and a Bright Spot

Nine years ago, New Mexico ranked 50th on the Chance-for-Success Index, which measures a range of academic and socioeconomic factors, getting a D+ grade where the average state grade was a C+. In the 2020 report, New Mexico ranks 51st on Chance for Success—last place. Once again it had a D+ grade, the only state to get so low a mark for this year’s report.

The state ranked last in levels of family income, 49th in parental education, and 48th in parental employment, highlighting difficult state conditions that impact its schools.

New Mexico has one of the highest poverty rates of any state; in 2017 the state found that a staggering 27.2 percent of residents under 18 were living in poverty. Only Louisiana had a higher poverty rate for residents under 18. The state’s economy has also lagged behind other states in recovering from the Great Recession, although a University of New Mexico economic analysis predicted some promising developments for the state in terms of employment and the business climate.

One policy area where New Mexico stands out is in the early years. It ranks 38th in preschool enrollment and 9th in kindergarten enrollment, and early childhood clearly remains a priority for the state.

A year ago, the federal government awarded the state $5.4 million under the Preschool Development Grants, with the option of applying for additional money in future years, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The state has used this money to support its development of a three-year strategic plan for early-childhood education. That plan is currently under development, and in July, a new cabinet-level agency, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, will begin operations.

Taking Action

In her first year, Grisham approved a funding increase for schools of nearly $500 million. The boost was earmarked for higher teacher salaries and more resources for low-income students, among other priorities. School staff received an across-the-board 6 percent pay raise.

“We are now leveling the playing field, that students irrespective of their socioeconomic status have opportunities in your public school,” she told the Associated Press in April 2019.

Separately, Grisham eliminated the state English/language arts and math tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards that was a key piece of the Martinez education agenda. And she also scrapped the A-F school grading system.

But finding the right leadership over the school system hasn’t been easy for the governor. She dismissed her first pick for state education secretary, Karen Trujillo, about half a year after tapping her, telling a New Mexico newspaper that “expectations were not met.”

The state is in a position to use its new blueprint on early-childhood education to build on its relatively strong rankings for preschool and kindergarten enrollment. But it’s also clear that the new state leaders are betting that a drastically different approach than the one taken by the last administration will pay dividends.

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2020 edition of Education Week as State Seeks Ways to Turn the Page on Weak Showing

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