Academic journal article Education Next

The New Mexico Reform Story: Will Hanna Skandera's Legacy Last?

Academic journal article Education Next

The New Mexico Reform Story: Will Hanna Skandera's Legacy Last?

Article excerpt

WHEN MOST PEOPLE THINK about aggressive, envelope-pushing education reform, a familiar cast of characters and a familiar set of locales come to mind: Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., Paul Pastorek and John White in Louisiana, Tony Bennett in Indiana, Kevin Huffman in Tennessee.

Not many people think of Hanna Skandera in New Mexico. They probably should.

As public education secretary of New Mexico, Hanna Skandera dug in fast, set an ambitious agenda, and broke a lot of china. Her ability to inspire and subsequently ignore controversy is clear: from the outset, she was deemed so contentious that the state senate refused to confirm her for four years, during which she performed her duties as "secretary-designate." When those same legislators failed to vote on a new teacher-evaluation system, she implemented it via regulation.

In June 2017, Skandera stepped down after seven years on the job, prompting a series of questions about her legacy. Was the Sturm und Drang of the Skandera years worthwhile? Did her later efforts to collaborate with teachers set the stage for sustained progress? And as the next generation takes on leadership roles, what can we learn from Skandera's challenges and successes? To explore this question, let's get a more thorough understanding of the New Mexico story--the context surrounding the reforms, the reforms themselves, and what we know so far about their results.

Looking for a Lightning Rod

New Mexico is a state that appears ripe for education reform. It is persistently at the bottom of most national rankings for academic performance and students' well-being, and faces daunting challenges: nearly three quarters of students are from low-income families and some 16 percent have limited English language proficiency. Statewide, more than three quarters of 4th graders read below grade level, the same share of 8th graders are below grade level in math, and nearly one third of high-school students drop out. In the most recent Quality Counts rankings, New Mexico was ranked last in the "chance for success" category and rated 49 out of 51 overall. Some 61 percent of students are Hispanic, 24 percent are white, and 10 percent are Native American.

Given these statistics, one would think that bringing in a superintendent with a desire to shake things up might be welcomed. It was not.

Skandera's time in New Mexico began with the 2010 election of Governor Susana Martinez, a Republican whose campaign promises included turning around failing public schools. Her victory was groundbreaking in several ways: not only was Martinez the first female governor in the state's history (and the first Hispanic female governor in the United States), but her election also delivered the governor's mansion to the mainstream GOP after years of Democratic (or libertarian-leaning Republican) control.

Martinez immediately moved to shake up the state's public schools, nominating Skandera to lead the Public Education Department. Skandera was best known as a former deputy education commissioner in Florida under Governor Jeb Bush, who had been pursuing a high-profile, accountability-focused agenda of education reforms. Both of New Mexico's teachers unions and leaders in the Democratic-controlled state senate were openly critical of the pick.

Skandera had never worked as a teacher or school leader, so to subvert her nomination, senate Democrats argued that her appointment would be unconstitutional. The Constitution of the State of New Mexico declares that the state department of education shall be "headed by a secretary of public education who is a qualified, experienced educator." Since Skandera had never taught, they claimed, she did not meet the criteria.

Neither Skandera nor Martinez relented, however. With Martinez's support, Skandera simply performed her job without her title until opposition finally wore down. She was at last confirmed as secretary in 2015 on a 22-19 vote, with five Democrats voting in her favor. …

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