I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, March 2, 2013

New Mexico's Reformy Education Chief Gets Her Hearing

There are several surprising parallels between New Mexico's education chief, Hanna Skandera, and New Jersey's head education honcho, Chris Cerf:

- Skandera has been the ACTING Secretary of Education in New Mexico for two years, and is finally getting a hearing; Cerf was the ACTING Commissioner of Education for 18 months before his confirmation.

- Cerf and Skandera are both members of Chiefs for Change, Jeb Bush's reformy group of state-level education leaders.

- Like Cerf, Skandera has been embarrassed by recently released emails tying her to Bush's reformy Foundation for Educational Excellence (FEE):
New Mexico
FEE provides its donors — including for-profit digital education companies — access to the chiefs. A draft agenda for the Excellence in Action 2011 Summit blocked off two hours for “Chiefs for Change donor meetings.” Another draft agenda for the meeting allocated nearly three hours to “Chiefs for Change donor meetings.” The donors for the summit were the Walton Family Foundation, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Carnegie Corp., Susan and Bill Oberndorf, GlobalScholar, Target, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Microsoft, State Farm, IQity, McGraw-Hill Education, Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, Intel, Pearson Foundation, Apex Learning, ETS, Electronic Arts, Koret Foundation, SMART Technologies, K12, Morgridge Family Foundation, Charter Schools USA and Connections Academy. Demand for donor time was so high that Patricia Levesque wrote that she had to turn down opportunities for the chiefs to meet other representatives from companies.
FEE staff served as advisers to acting education commissioner Hanna Skandera. FEE, and, by extension, its donors, had great influence over New Mexico legislation. In a Jan., 2011, e-mail, Skandera directs a staffer from the legislature to forward all education bills to FEE’s Christy Hovanetz for edits: “Can you send all Governor’s office ed bill language to Christy, including social promotion?” Another FEE staffer, Mary Laura Bragg, wrote to Skandera, “I’m at your beck and call.”
• The foundation sought to make connections between Skandera (as well as the other Chiefs for Change) and the Hume Foundation for funds for digital learning projects from  Hume  that “must flow through the Foundation for Excellence in Education as a project-restricted grant.” The Santa Fe New Mexican reported  Oct. 21 that Skandera had indeed applied for such a grant, which ultimately could lead to digital learning legislation favorable to FEE funders Connections Academy and K-12 Inc.
• The e-mails indicate that FEE paid for Skandera’s travel, reimbursing New Mexico $3382.91 for her expenses, including trip to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress.
- Both Cerf and Skandera both have some sketchy connections to educationally dubious "virtual" schools:
FEE’s affiliation with one donor is particularly relevant to New Mexico. Connections Academy, a Baltimore, Md.-based for-profit corporation that operates tuition-free, publicly funded virtual charter schools in 22 states, helped sponsor an October 2011 summit in California for which Skandera was listed as a speaker. Although the emails offer no direct evidence of Skandera’s meeting with Connections Academy officials, the summit designated certain time slots for Chiefs for Change participants (like Skandera) to meet with corporate sponsors (like Connections). Travel vouchers also show that “Foundation Funds” paid $1,107 to fly state Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Colfax, to the same summit. Three months later, Roch sponsored a bill allocating $1 million for PED to transition to a new teacher evaluation system.

To be sure, meeting with corporate education firms is neither uncommon nor illicit. Often, it can help public officials learn about new and beneficial education programs and products. 

But critics worry that establishing close ties between public officials and for-profit education firms can lead to decisions that put those companies’ interests over the needs of students.

Last summer, for instance, Connections sought to open a virtual charter school in New Mexico. The Public Education Commission, a nine-member board elected by New Mexico voters, turned it down. But this January, Skandera overturned the PEC’s decision. Now, commissioner Jeff Carr says the PEC may vote to challenge Skandera’s decision in court. [emphasis mine]
- Like Cerf, Skandera has never been a public school teacher or principal; this is in contradiction to what is required by New Mexico's constitution:

Friday’s hearing was mostly limited to testimony from the public, and did not allow time for the committee to question Skandera. Much of the testimony centered on whether Skandera meets the constitutional requirement that the secretary of education must be a “qualified, experienced educator.”
Peggy Stielow, president of the Rio Rancho School Employees Union, said Skandera does not understand the challenges of being a teacher.
“We need a department secretary who has spent time in the classroom, who truly has experienced the classroom,” Stielow said. “As our Constitution says, a qualified, experienced educator. It’s apparent that there is a lack of understanding of the art of teaching – the day-to-day challenges.”
Skandera supporters contended “educator” is a broad word that does not necessarily mean a classroom teacher.
Larry Langley, head of the New Mexico Business Roundtable, said it is old-fashioned to think all educators are in classrooms.
“Please understand that to be a highly qualified educator doesn’t require you to be in front of a classroom,” Langley said. “Every one of us in this room, I hope, are some kind of qualified educator. I’ve certainly learned things from the chair of this committee. I have learned things from the ranking member of this committee, and from many others. You have been my educators, and you have been qualified educators.” [emphasis mine]
I think we can all agree that is just about the dumbest thing anyone has ever said ever. Why would the New Mexico constitution specify that the SecEd needs to be a "qualified, experienced educator" if everyone is already one?

- Like Cerf, Skandera's agenda appears to consist almost entirely of reformy policies that have never been shown to work:
Ms. Skandera has repeatedly demonstrated that she is unable to discuss reform in education in any meaningful shape or form, other than the reform platitudes espoused by FEE and Students First; it is easy to say that "all children deserve outstanding teachers" because it sounds good, and everyone agrees with it. However, it is meaningless without delineating what makes an outstanding teacher, and what you will do to make sure New Mexico will have outstanding teachers. She has no meaningful experience in actual schools, having never spent a day in a classroom, and thus does not meet the constitutional requirement of being a "qualified, experienced educator." She has established that she will conduct relationships that, while perhaps not being illegal, are certainly questionable from an ethical standpoint, as evidenced by the Connections Academy fiasco. Finally, she has demonstrated no ability to understand and adapt her reform initiatives to the cultural and socioeconomic diversity that is New Mexico. [emphasis mine]
Last I checked, Skandera's hearing was scheduled to continue today. Let's see if she winds up having one more thing in common with Cerf: a hearing where she isn't fully vetted and winds up being confirmed despite many unanswered questions.

I hope the people of New Mexico demand better from their Legislature than the people of New Jersey got from theirs.
Please don't ask my girl Hanna any hard questions, OK?