NM Senate panel opens education secretary hearing

March 1, 2013 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Opponents of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s nominee as public education secretary told lawmakers Friday that Hanna Skandera doesn’t meet the constitutional requirements for the job she’s held since 2011, but business and tribal leaders called for her confirmation by the Senate.

On the opening day of a confirmation hearing by the Senate Rules Committee, Skandera drew sharply mixed reviews as the advocate for educational policy changes opposed by many Democrats. The governor has proposed requiring schools to hold back third-graders who can’t read proficiently but the measure has stalled in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

The committee plans to continue on Saturday and its job is to decide whether to forward Skandera’s nomination for a vote by the Senate, where Democrats hold a 25-17 majority.

It’s rare for lawmakers to turn down a governor’s appointee for a high-level [auth] job. The Senate last rejected a department cabinet secretary in 1997, when GOP Gov. Gary Johnson was in office.

Educational union officials and other opponents said Skandera didn’t meet a constitutional requirement for the department secretary to be a “qualified, experienced educator.”

Skandera has never worked as a teacher or administrator in a public elementary or secondary school. She was a senior policy adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings during President George W. Bush’s administration. She also was a deputy commissioner of education in the Florida Department of Education in 2005-2007 when Jeb Bush was governor.

“We need a department secretary who has spent time in the classroom, who truly has experienced the classroom,” said Peggy Stielow, president of Rio Rancho School Employees Union.

But business leaders said Skandera is doing a good job of trying to change an educational system struggling with low graduation rates and poor student performance on tests assessing reading and math proficiency.

“Regardless of whether the governor is Democrat or Republican, we think they should have the choice that they want in this critical spot in their cabinet,” said Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

She said the constitution doesn’t require a public school teacher serve as the top administrator of the Public Education Department, which was placed under the control of the governor in 2003 with a cabinet-level secretary. Previously, the state superintendent of schools was selected by the now defunct state Board of Education.

If the Senate rejects Skandera’s nomination, she’s fired from her post immediately. However, Martinez could name her to another administration job.

Several Native American leaders praised Skandera for visiting tribal communities to learn about the educational problems facing Indian students. A tribal official read a letter of support from Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly.

Laguna Pueblo Gov. Richard Luarkie urged lawmakers to set aside their political differences and confirm Skandera.

“Whether we realize it or not we’re all educating our kids today,” he said. “We’re teaching them maybe how not to work together. We need to show them how to work together, even if we don’t agree.”

After the hearing, Skandera said, “There is obviously a difference between a teacher and an educator. I believe I am well qualified for the job and I think that was established today.”

When Johnson was governor in 1995-2002, the Senate rejected two of his cabinet secretaries and he withdrew the nomination of another cabinet nominee in the face of certain rejection.

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