Confirmation Hearing For Skandera Sparks Long Debate

Mar 4, 2013

The hearing to confirm Secretary-designate of education Hanna Skandera that began Friday continued in a contentious hours-long session on Saturday.  It’s been a two-year wait for the former Deputy Commissioner of Education in Florida, who was appointed by Governor Susana Martinez in 2011.

The Santa Fe roundhouse was flooded Saturday by hundreds of teachers, parents, principals, and others, who wound around the atrium, waiting for a chance to speak. In contrast to Friday, when many from the business community and charter schools spoke on Hanna Skandera’s behalf, most took the floor in strong opposition. 

Educators criticized Skandera’s teacher evaluation system and plans to retain third graders who aren’t proficient readers.  They protested that the state constitution requires a "qualified, experienced educator" to serve as secretary of education.

"I think we need a person who’s walked in the shoes of an educator," Crystal Wood, kindergarten and first grade teacher in Albuquerque, said. She pointed to Skandera’s lack of classroom experience. "I believe she must be an experienced educator. I do believe she’s passionate, but I would like her to come to my classroom and put on my shoes, and try my job for a day or two, and actually learn about my students."

Leaders of Laguna Pueblo and the Navajo Nation had spoken in favor of Skandera’s confirmation previously, but on Saturday, teacher Catherine Mondragon of the Taos pueblo said they didn’t speak for her. "My concern is that Ms. Skandera does not have the qualifications to make the directives for our Indian Education system," Mondragon said. 

Along with passionate teachers, school administrators stood to share their opinions.  Deborah Hemwood represented the Albuquerque Public Schools Principals Association, which opposes Skandera’s confirmation. "We have a grading system, A through F, which currently has a formula that very few can understand."

The embattled Skandera does have the support of some state senators.  Gay Kernan’s district is in southeastern New Mexico.  She says the superintendents in her region support Skandera, and she commended the secretary-designate’s professionalism. "I have never known anyone with the tenacity," she said, "with the ability to stand firm, to remain cool and calm in the face of a great deal of criticism."

To her supporters, Skandera represents the dramatic change needed to solve persistent issues in the educational system, like the 70 percent graduation rate.  A recent Quality Counts survey ranked New Mexico 47th in student achievement nationally.

Fred Trujillo, Superintendent of Pecos Independent School District, praised Skandera’s work to date. "She recognizes there needs to be a sense of urgency," he pointed out, "that we need to change many of our ways, not all of them, but many of our ways, and the way that we approach education."

Sandra Davis, principal of Turquoise Trail Charter School in Santa Fe, echoed the call for change, describing Skandera as a leader with “vision.” "We need to be open to new ideas." Davis encouraged. "We need to make some changes in New Mexico in our education.  It is time for us to stop making excuses for our children’s performance."

Many opponents countered they believe Skandera’s reforms are attempts to privatize public education in order to benefit for-profit education contractors.  They say her reforms are short on specifics, and not research-based.

Diane Torres Velasquez is an education professor at UNM and chair of the Latino Education Task Force.  She accused Skandera’s administration of showing a lack of concern for the Hispanic community by denying the task force’s requests for meetings. "How can businesspeople say that they support these initiatives, when none of us have even heard the details," she demanded. 

While the window for public input is now closed, the debate over Skandera’s confirmation continues Monday when the Senate Rules Committee will vote on whether to send it to the full Senate.