New federal education regulations will give New Mexico flexibility

Education Secretary John B. King outlined a new framework for the Every Student Succeeds Act on Monday. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

No Child Left Behind, a federal education law that stirred complaints and controversy for 14 years, is in the history books. Now a successor program is taking shape that is supposed to give states more power over how schools are run.

Executives of the U.S. Department of Education announced Monday that they have created regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Secretary of Education John King said during a conference call with reporters that guidelines of the act will allow states to “reclaim the promise of a high-quality, well-rounded education for students.”

President Barack Obama signed the 1,100-page act into law last year. Unlike No Child Left Behind, the new education law says states no longer have to rely heavily on student test scores to measure a teacher’s effectiveness. And it won’t force or even encourage states to use a particular curriculum.

The new regulations largely would leave decisions on contentious programs to New Mexico officeholders. They include whether to continue the state’s system of evaluating teachers and rating public schools with A-through-F grades. In addition, the state would decide whether to keep using Common Core Standards or the correlating standardized tests.

All of those programs, supported by Gov. Susana Martinez, have faced opposition from some educators and legislators.

King said each state has significant flexibility to do little or nothing new if it feels it has already initiated policies that fit into the federal framework.

Christopher Ruszkowski, a deputy secretary of the New Mexico Public Education Department, said the new guidelines set a minimum for state oversight. And, he said, New Mexico is already addressing many of the mandates within the new federal system in terms of supporting low-performing schools, releasing school report cards and pushing for 95 percent participation rates in standards-based testing.

Ruszkowski said focus groups assembled by the state Public Education Department have reinforced that “we deserve not to have those goalposts moved.”

But New Mexico may have to tweak its A-F school grading system to make it clearer, and to take into account a new mandate asking states to do more to specifically identify subgroups of students who have been historically underserved, he said. These could include those learning English as a second language, special-education students and minority groups, Ruszkowski said.

Karen Trujillo, a research faculty member at the College of Education at New Mexico State University, said it may be too early to figure out the ramifications of the federal policies on the state.

“I think it’s very possible that very little will change,” Trujillo said. “It’s really about moving back down to state and local control. But in New Mexico, what does that mean?”

The new rules extend the deadline until 2018-19 for states to identify schools that need targeted support. Among those schools are those with graduation rates of 67 percent or less. A recent national study reported that some 40 percent of New Mexico’s schools are below that level.

States must submit their own plans to implement the federal policies either in early April or September 2017. Ruszkowski said New Mexico is aiming for April so it can have a plan in place before the start of the next school year.

But Trujillo said it might be better to wait until September so the Public Education Department can gather more data and hear from more educators, families and students about how they want the new system to play out in the state.

Unclear is whether President-elect Donald Trump or his choice for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, would attempt to change, expand or eliminate the law. King declined to comment on the possibility of changes.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com