ALBUQUERQUE — Claiming New Mexico schools are in “crisis,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gary King unveiled a broad education plan Wednesday that would increase spending for public schools, eliminate the state's controversial teacher-evaluation system and put a moratorium on high-stakes student testing.

He also wants to fire Hanna Skandera, the head of the state Public Education Department.

Speaking in front of Zia Elementary School in Albuquerque — after the last bell had called all the children inside for their first day of school — King was joined by representatives from teachers unions that have endorsed him over Gov. Susana Martinez in the November election.

A few hours later, Martinez spoke with reporters in Albuquerque following a stint in which she read a big picture book to some first-graders in teacher Rachel Baucom’s class at East San Jose Elementary School. The children told Martinez they like to read because it makes them smarter and that they enjoy books about dinosaurs, sharks, crocodiles and alligators.

Attorney General King’s event attracted a few bystanders, some King campaign staff members, 10 media representatives and King’s wife, Yolanda. King said his wife, a scientist, helped found a Family Focus Center at Zia that draws on community resources to support students.

The Zia school also is across the street from the American Federation of Teachers offices.

Martinez’s event also drew a few bystanders, some Martinez campaign staff members and a few educators within the school.

King’s education plan clearly puts him at odds with Martinez, who is seeking a second term. He expressed criticism of almost all of her education policies while offering some broad outlines of his own plans to reform education in the state.

“Education is the issue in New Mexico in this campaign,” King said.

Martinez told reporters education will be a dominant theme: “I think everyone will be talking about it.”

King said he does not have anyone in mind to act as his secretary of education: “What I have in mind is to make sure Hanna Skandera is no longer secretary of education in New Mexico.”

Skandera and Martinez have taken heat for implementing hard-to-understand school grading and teacher evaluation systems that remain unpopular with many educators and advocates. Martinez used her executive powers to initiate the teacher evaluations, which heavily rely on student test scores.

King said teachers should not be rated based on test scores, since poverty, hunger and other social factors outside a teacher’s control often influence the results.

Martinez said she found King’s comments about poverty “extremely bothersome” and said King’s educational platform sounds like a “dusted off” version of former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson’s educational platform.

“There are no excuses for any child not being able to learn,” she said, citing the success of low-income students in schools in the Gadsden Independent School District.

King said he would commit at least 50 percent of the state general fund to education. About 44 percent of Martinez’s approved budget goes to education, and she said the state is spending more on education than it has in years.

King said he would pull 1.5 percent from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund — about $110 million by his estimate — to fund early childhood education programs for every student in the state. Martinez has said she does not want to pull money from that fund for fear of decreasing its future worth.

King said the state should consider forgoing some federal funding if it means reducing the number of federally mandated tests. “We are not in New Mexico bound to do what the federal government wants us to do when it comes to the welfare of the students in our schools.”

Larry Behrens, a spokesman for the Public Education Department, said via email that New Mexico receives more than $400 million in federal education funding every year and that “putting this funding at risk is a bad decision for our students. To our knowledge, there is no state that has ever utilized a partial testing rollback. Such a move would violate state and federal law. Of course we would absolutely lose our waiver from No Child Left Behind and again fall under those rigid requirements, giving the federal government more control.”

King said teachers are supporting him because he listens to their concerns and will work to create a more balanced teacher evaluation system based on classroom observations by educators.

Asked if teachers are bashing her or do not respect her, Martinez said, “No. Absolutely not.” She said every teacher she encountered on a recent visit to the Gadsden School District told her they are on board with her reforms.

King has scheduled nine educational listening events around the state throughout the next month. He will be in Santa Fe on Sept. 15, speaking at the local NEA office on Botulph Road.

Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.