By Paul J. Gessing

Kurt Steinhaus has been on the job for just a month or so, but he has already put forth some policies and ideas regarding New Mexico's education system that leave us scratching our heads.

We all want our children to do better in school so that they are prepared to be productive workers and informed citizens. That is not an easy task, and it is made even more difficult by the pandemic and the government's reaction to it.

The first question is why PED has chosen not to release standardized testing data that it has from March of 2020 prior to the Pandemic. Yes, only 10% of students took the test, but there is still useful information to be gleaned from the 10% that took it. That's especially true since there will be no data available at all for 2021. We know New Mexico students began the pandemic behind their peers in other states, but New Mexico families and our education leaders deserve to have at least some insights into where things stood right before the pandemic.

More bizarre are comments Steinhaus made in early October at a Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC). When asked what New Mexico would need to do to "make New Mexico teacher salaries competitive" he claimed the State would "have to double teacher salaries."

That is quite simply false. According to the latest data from the National Education Association (NEA), New Mexico's average teacher pay is $54,256 annually (ranked 32nd in the nation). The highest paid teachers on average are found in New York where they make $87,069. Doubling New Mexico teacher salaries would not "make them competitive." It would make them by far the highest paid in the nation (at nearly $110,000) in a state that has much lower taxes and living costs than does New York and others with high salaries.

Setting aside whether increasing teacher pay is warranted or effective at increasing student performance, there is simply no data backing up the idea that New Mexico should double teacher pay. Perhaps Steinhaus is not familiar with what New Mexico teachers make or past efforts to recruit and offer enhanced pay to high performing teachers.

And then there are the State's revised Social Studies standards which clearly were "in progress" during (prior Secretary) Ryan Stewart's time at PED but were recently released under Steinhaus. Whether you can call the new, much more prescriptive standards "Critical Race Theory" (CRT) or not is open to question, but there are concerning elements to be found in the new standards that simply weren't in the old ones.

Throughout the new standards there is a focus not simply on geography, human development, and historical facts and events and their relevance for us today. The new standards (if adopted) focus on differences, rather than the similarities among various racial and ethnic groups. Inequity (unequal outcome for different groups) replaces equality under the law. The general trend in the new standards is away from presenting the facts and asking students to come to their own conclusions to instead hammering approved beliefs on everything from gun control and "destruction and occupation" of the Americas by the Spaniards into students.

Secretary Steinhaus does not have an easy job and we understand that. But, as in so many areas of New Mexico government, we'd prefer to see a data-driven focus on improving student outcomes. If paying teachers more will improve outcomes, let's see the data. And rather than teaching watered-down CRT, let's focus on teaching basic historical events and not spinning them to make America look like a hive of inequality and injustice.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico's Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

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