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President of national teachers union blasts Martinez

May 25, 2017

The head of one of the country’s most powerful teachers unions came to Santa Fe on Wednesday and criticized Gov. Susana Martinez’s education policies as a “blame and shame” approach that demoralizes teachers and hurts efforts to improve public schools.

During a news conference at the Capitol less than an hour before the start of a special legislative session to balance the state budget, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, likened Martinez and New Mexico Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera to President Donald Trump. She said Martinez and Skandera, like Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, want to destabilize and privatize public education.

She also blasted Trump’s proposal, announced earlier this week, to cut $11 billion from federal public education funding. That move “is cruel and callous and catastrophic,” Weingarten said.

Democratic lawmakers from both the Senate and House of Representatives surrounded her and pledged to hold firm against any additional cuts to public education.

Martinez vetoed all funding for the state’s higher education system earlier this year, partly in protest of the state Senate’s failure to hold confirmation hearings for two of her appointees to The University of New Mexico Board of Regents. But Martinez and Republican lawmakers have told The New Mexican they also intend to protect public school funding levels for the coming year.

Representatives for the governor and Skandera said Weingarten’s appearance at the Capitol, which came as the state Democratic Party held a march in support of restoring higher education funding, was politically motivated.

It was “nothing more than a political stunt,” said Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for Martinez. “… The governor is committed to protecting classroom spending.”

“This is what New York union bosses do — parachute into states they know nothing about in an effort to score cheap political points,” said Lida Alikhani of the Public Education Department.

The state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and another union, the National Education Association of New Mexico, often clash with Skandera and Martinez on education policies, such as teacher evaluations, standardized testing and the state’s A-F grading system for public schools. Skandera and Martinez have pushed back.

Two weeks ago, the Albuquerque Journal reported that Skandera called teachers unions an “entrenched political establishment” that impede education reform.

Earlier this month, AFT-New Mexico blasted the state Public Education Department’s plans to overhaul its dual-language initiatives and implement funding cuts for K-3 Plus, a popular summer program for low-income children in kindergarten to third grade. The union sent out an email erroneously saying the department had cut $23.7 million from the program — its entire statewide budget. Instead, the department asked each district to trim its K-3 Plus classes by about 15 percent.

“The NM PED and Governor Martinez continue to drive a false narrative about New Mexico’s public schools,” the union said in a May 1 email, “… that they simply are bloated bureaucracies who poorly manage their budgets. The reality is that the NM PED and Governor Martinez have used hard-saved district reserves to bail out their own empty coffers because of their gross mismanagement of State funds.”

The Democratic-controlled Legislature proposed a budget during the regular session that would sweep $46 million from the emergency funds of school districts around New Mexico to help balance the state budget. Martinez had proposed taking even more of districts’ reserve funds.

School districts have had to make painful decisions while drafting budgets for the coming year amid financial uncertainty. Santa Fe Public Schools is still exploring ways to cut $1.6 million from its $185 million budget. Albuquerque Public Schools is looking to make $13 million in cuts after approving a $1.3 billion budget.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who heads the Legislative Education Study Committee, said Wednesday afternoon that both the state Senate and House of Representatives were introducing balanced budgets with no additional cuts to public education during the special session.

Legislators have introduced language in the budget bill to increase per-pupil funding to up to $10 million, she said. But the proposal was not a done deal.

The federal education budget is also raising concerns.

Weingarten said leaders from both major political parties should fight to protect public education for a basic reason. “Public schools have become everything,” she said. “They become grandma and grandpa and aunt and uncle and mom and dad and coach — not just teachers.”

Earlier this year, she said, she aimed to teach DeVos, a strong supporter of school vouchers and charter schools, about the importance of public education. She and DeVos took a tour of some rural schools in Ohio during which, Weingarten said, DeVos seemed impressed with what she saw.

But when Weingarten heard about the cuts to public education, she said, DeVos “did not change her ideology one iota.”

“It’s not that she doesn’t know,” Weingarten said. “She doesn’t care.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.