Photos Courtesy of Sandy Feutz

Article by Charlie McKee

Lorna Rubelman, Chair of the Third Thursday Forum, introduced the April 24 forum at Western New Mexico University's Miller Library by stating that "there is a move afoot to privatize schools and de-fund public education." New Mexico State Representative Rudy Martinez, who moderated the forum, added that this was a challenging topic and should be a "top priority for the State, our children, and our community."

The official title of the forum was "How Partisan Politics Have Snared Public Education," and its panel consisted of Stephanie Ly, American Federation of Teachers chapter president; Cristobal Rodriguez, New Mexico State University Professor of Educational Policy; Justin Wecks, President of the Grant County Chapter of the National Education Association; and Margaret Flores-Begay, Manager of the Sixth Judicial District Adult Drug Court and Family Court.

Each panelist gave his or her view of the topic, and Martinez subsequently opened the forum to questions and answers from the audience. The panelists' perspectives were presented as follows:

  • Stephanie Ly introduced herself as the mother of four daughters and a former teacher in Chicago, IL, and Rio Rancho, NM, in addition to her current role with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). She reported that AFT represents 23,000 workers in the public school system in New Mexico. Ly stated that the advent of the federal "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) legislation in 2001 began a "high stakes testing" policy that has led to the widespread closing of schools in poverty-stricken areas. Ly also noted that the testing requirement of 78 to 80 days of testing out of 175 days of school forces teachers to teach testing, not learning. She explained that the current New Mexico governor wants more state funds allocated to the governor's discretionary funds as opposed to the fund that is subject to the State Equalization Formula and is equally distributed to all public schools in the state. Ly urged the audience to "take education out of the hands of the Corporation and elect a new governor: Senator Howie Morales!"
  • Justin Wecks informed the audience that he has been both a teacher and an active union member in Colorado and New Mexico. He considers the current climate to be a "looming crisis in education," which is forcing good teachers out of the classroom. Wecks noted that teachers' pay has been frozen for six years, causing a net loss of income each year due to concurrent increases in the cost of insurances and other deductions. He also emphasized the deleterious effects of NCLB on the public school system since 2002, calling it the "beginning of a toxic brew" which increases the workload and decreases the pay of well educated, conscientious teachers, giving them a "feeling of hopelessness." Wecks stated that Governor Martinez has no education experience, has demonstrated an anti-public school position and considers education reform to be privatization of the schools. Wecks concluded by telling the audience that teachers are not only leaving the classroom in unheard of numbers, but that college students are no longer choosing public education as a career path because "who would want it?" Wecks then emotionally informed the audience that he had resigned from the school system that day, because "my profession is being driven into the ground by corporate greed."
  • Margaret Flores-Begay informed the audience that she has 20 years of experience in criminal and juvenile justice and that her husband is a teacher. She stated that the school system needs to take into account the dramatic difference in current society's family situations. She noted that high risk children are generally not in traditional two-parent homes, rather are being raised by grandparents and single parents. She also pointed out that the children are often more "high tech" than their parents and grandparents and that the system needs to evaluate parents as well as teachers in gauging the success potential of the child. Begay emphasized that "it is everyone's job" to help kids be successful in school. She also echoed the sentiment of the other panelists that NCLB had created chaos in the school system.
  • Cristobal Rodriguez described his areas of expertise as being those of education policy and leadership. Rodriquez stated that interest group agendas are now driving education policy and that policy needs to be shifted from focusing "on blame of the children, parents, etc. to providing opportunities." Rodriguez also explained the unique phenomenon that NCLB has created whereby kids are being held back again and again for testing purposes, are then entering high school at age 17 and are so de-motivated that they then drop out of school. Rodriguez urged the audience to "organize, mobilize, form coalitions, and move beyond blaming the victims."

After the panelists spoke, Martinez opened the forum to questions posed to the panel from the audience. The questions included the following:

1) What have we learned from the New Orleans model of having 80% charter schools?
Answer: Still unknown because of limited accountability and measures in charter schools. Some do serve disadvantaged kids, and there are good and bad results. The New Orleans experience needs continuing observation.
2) How are New Mexico state education standards affected by under-funding policies?
Answer: Setting of state standards used to be collaborative with educators and other policy makers in the state, but Governor Martinez operates in a "stand-alone" mode in her own interests.
3) Is there a difference between for-profit and non-profit (such as Aldo Leopold) charter schools and their success rates?
Answer: Community organized schools deserve kudos for their efforts, but struggle with lack of resources and the experience of the public schools.
4) What happens to incompetent teachers as a result of NCLB testing policies?
Answer: The New Mexico state statute provides an easy method by which to fire incompetent teachers, and the union cannot protect incompetent teachers against this. Five percent of New Mexico teachers have been terminated.
5) What happened to developmentally formulated curricula?
They have been eliminated, and the first grade curriculum has been pushed downward into the kindergarten level. This has caused psychological and emotional problems with young children who are not developmentally ready to learn reading and other advanced curricula. In addition, play-centered learning has been virtually eliminated. Home-based and community-based (including "abuelitas") early childhood education are needed as part of the overall system.

The forum was then adjourned to dinner.


Live from Silver City

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