Political Potshots Keep New Mexico K-12 Chief’s Fate Up in the Air

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 11, 2013 4 min read
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When a political appointee has had the word “designate” in his or her official title for more than two years, it’s a decent bet that there’s some controversy to the story. That’s the case in New Mexico, where it appears that Secretary-Designate of Education Hanna Skandera may see her third legislative session wrap up without state lawmakers deciding whether to officially confirm her in the job. (The regular session of the New Mexico Legislature ends on March 16.) In several respects, her confirmation fight illuminates basic policy and political struggles at the heart of K-12.

Skandera was nominated to her position as secretary in 2011 by newly elected GOP Gov. Susana Martinez, but she doesn’t actually hold the full title, and the state Senate has never confirmed her. Why? The answer depends on who you ask. The legal reason cited sometimes by Democrats who control the Senate is that the state constitution requires the K-12 boss in the state to have worked as an “qualified, experienced educator” prior to taking over the top spot, something that Skandera has never done, if by “educator” you mean a classroom teacher.

Skandera’s background is a hefty one, policywise, and includes a stint as deputy commissioner of education in Florida during the administration of former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, a stint working for former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on policy and communications issues, and as undersecretary for education in California during the years of GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ironically enough, she has taught in the classroom—but that teaching period was at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy in California.

But it’s her association with Bush, and specifically her attempts to bring the same policies that he has championed through his group the Foundation for Excellence in Education, that have really initiated the brawl in the Land of Enchantment. Skandera has warred with Democrats and teachers’ unions in New Mexico (one union voted “no confidence” in her last year) over a suite of policies. They include the A-F grading of schools in the state, which she successfully pushed for in 2011. However, another of Skandera’s big initiatives, a plan to retain 3rd graders who can’t demonstrate literacy, has stalled.

Remember, Skandera’s department also got into some hot water over a department spokesman’s use of his private email to provide lists of unionized and non-unionized teachers to Martinez’s administration. Democrats alleged that the spokesman, Larry Behrens was engaging in dirty tricks by doing political work on the side for Martinez, although Behrens himself called his actions a simple mistake.

This year, she’s also squabbled with her political foes over the creation of a virtual school in the state. Skandera overruled a vote by the state’s Public Education Commission, which rejected an application from Connections Academy to begin operating in the state, and allowed the online school to begin operating, as my colleague Sean Cavanagh has discussed. Finally, Skandera has been subject to recriminations due to her association with The Foundation for Excellence in Education. Staffers for that group have advised Skandera and been paid for it using New Mexico’s public funds, for example, according to Independent Source PAC, a liberal watchdog in New Mexico. The group also alleges misconduct by Skandera over the use of federal Title I funds and claims she wasted taxpayer money over upcoming tests linked to the Common Core State Standards. (You can also read Education Week Commentary blogger Anthony Cody’s take on Skandera.)

This session, state senators have once again held hearings on whether to confirm her. It has featured several hours of testimony by Skandera herself and those seeking to support or denounce her. The hearings have also featured cries of political intimidation by Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez, chairwoman of the Rules Committee, which presided over the hearings, who claimed that Martinez’s staff was “bullying” her over certain documents.

But GOP Sen. Sander Rue, a member of the committee, grumbled that the hearings this year had improperly departed from their intended task of determining whether Skandera was qualified in the first place: “Because we did not have a confirmation hearing two years ago, that train left the station a long time ago. This confirmation, in my opinion, has degenerated into a job-performance evaluation.”

Skandera is a member of Chiefs for Change, an affiliate of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education that supports policy initiatives like A-F school grades and 3rd grade reading retention. Several members of that group, although not in their official Chiefs for Change capacity, wrote an open letter urging lawmakers to confirm Skandera. Signatories included K-12 bosses and Chiefs for Change members Janet Barresi (Oklahoma) and Tony Bennett (Florida). Part of that letter read: “We recognize that policy work is political, but the politics here have taken priority over New Mexico’s students. It is time to put an end to this. This kind of political stalling has never been seen before in the confirmation of a state education chief.”

They also cite recent improvements in the state’s graduation rate during Skandera’s time on the job as evidence that her policy initiatives should be given the chance to work.

The panel of senators adjourned, after all the hours of testimony during the first weekend this month, without that classic “up or down vote” on Skandera’s fate.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.