New Mexico’s new public education secretary-designate, Kurt Steinhaus, has big plans for the state’s public school system, which has struggled with declining enrollment, teacher vacancies and low student proficiency rates.
He presented lawmakers on the Legislative Education Study Committee with short- and long-terms goals during a hearing Monday, including a five-year plan to address a judge’s 2018 order against the state in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit.
Steinhaus, a former Los Alamos Public Schools superintendent, stepped into the Cabinet-level job in mid-August, following the resignation of former education secretary Ryan Stewart.
He did not share details of the Yazzie/Martinez plan but told lawmakers it would address assessment issues. In-class, “short-cycle” assessments of students likely will be used to track student progress along with other data, he said.
The Public Education Department has been urging districts to use interim assessments to gauge the “unfinished learning” among students during the COVID-19 pandemic. But so far, those tests have not been mandatory.
The Yazzie/Martinez plan is under review at the Governor’s Office, Steinhaus said. Later this month, it will be released for public review and comment.
Among his short-term goals, Steinhaus said he hopes to begin closing the “digital divide” by distributing more devices to students and will work to increase qualified staffing in schools during a year of high vacancy rates and wants to boost teacher pay.
He called on lawmakers to ensure New Mexico’s average teacher salary rises to the top in comparison with surrounding states Colorado, Texas, Utah, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Data from the National Education Association shows teachers in New Mexico earn an average of about $54,200 a year, while Colorado teachers earn $57,700.
Steinhaus said his short-term goals lay a path for longer-term ambitions: fully funding four of the state’s cultural education acts; investing in more career and technical education programs; and incentivizing extended learning programs, which have seen lower rates of participation since the start of the pandemic.
Steinhaus also asked legislators to boost state funding for the Public Education Department’s operating budget by nearly 40 percent for fiscal year 2022, to $23.2 million from $16.6 million.
More than half of agency’s operating funds come from the federal government.
The additional state money would fund positions related to some education laws, like the Black Education Act, the Indian Education Act and the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act, Steinhaus said, adding the move would allow the department to advertise new jobs as permanent positions rather than temporary ones.
“I think we’ll get better employees,” he said.
A handful of lawmakers on the Legislative Education Study Committee lauded Steinhaus’ plan.
“Your four-step plan for the next days is breathtakingly exciting to me,” said Rep. Roger Montoya, D-Velarde.
Rep. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, expressed concern, however, that Steinhaus didn’t address issues surrounding the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, a mostly federally funded agency that offers job placement aid for people with disabilities.
The former head of that division filed a whistleblower suit against Stewart in August, claiming the Public Education Department attempted to move her agency to the Department of Workforce Solutions, in violation of state and federal rules.
Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, asked Steinhaus about his plans to use ethnic studies in the classroom as a way to “create structural and institutional changes towards a linguistically and culturally relevant education.”
Steinhaus pointed to upcoming conversations on proposed new social studies standards for classrooms statewide. He said he hopes the overhauled standards will help bring more culturally relevant material to students.
“Adopting the standards is just one step of the process of getting it in the frontal cortex of the teachers,” he said.
The Public Education Department will hear public comment on the proposed standards Nov. 12.
The standards already have drawn criticism from the Republican Party of New Mexico and Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, who is vying for the Republican nomination for governor in the June 2022 primary. Dow blasted the standards as an effort to tell “New Mexicans that they are raising racist children.”
The state GOP called the standards “revisionist history” with a “bias toward progressive thinking.”