Greedy Education “Reformers” the Bad Guys, Not Teachers!

I do not expect the fascists at the State Government Leadership Foundation to call me back. This is a shame, because I want very badly to ask this: How can a group that claims to endorse “conservatives policies” think the government should decide what’s best for students over their teachers and parents? 

I’m also curious what they were paying for when they donated $10,000 to Gov. Susana Martinez’s pac last month. 

SGLF has a surreal new commercial running in New Mexico and five other states. It says teachers unions “are bullies, and they’re destroying our children’s future.” It shows kids in a school hallway running scared from a shadowy figure looming in the background. It’s a teacher with freaky black serial-killer eyeballs. Behind him is a sign that says “Teacher’s Union First.” 

We see this serial killer/teacher slam a locker in one kid’s face. Then we see him counting $20-dollar bills as the narrator says “These bullies make hundreds of thousands of dollars, and protect failing teachers.” 

The 30-second spot ends with a flourish. Children vanish from their desks while the serial-killing teacher uses his fist to stick the “Teachers Union First” sign over the words “Accountability,” “Reward Best Teachers” and “School Choice,” written in chalk on a blackboard. 

New Mexico fits into this nefarious union plot, presumably, because legislators didn’t pass education reform from Gov. Susana Martinez and her education secretary Hanna Skandera. Their plan would have required students be held back a grade if they can’t pass a third-grade reading test.

The Public Education Department ignores my calls and emails. (Hey, Larry!) So does the governor’s office. When I contacted a woman who works for the SGLF named Sarah Lenti, she also blew me off, even though she’d been quoted by other news outlets. (People who follow New Mexico education politics might recognize that name. Sarah’s sister Leighann Lenti is Skandera’s policy advisor, who famously received an email lamenting the PED’s inability to ignore multilingual students’ rights when they submit work toward graduation: “We cannot require the majority of the portfolio to be in English due to the rule which allows submissions in Spanish or Native Languages. Darn.”) 

I wanted to talk to someone, anyone involved with this weird propaganda effort, so I called Christine Trujillo. She’s the president of the American Federation of Teachers in New Mexico, and she’s running for the House District 25 seat in the New Mexico legislature. 

What, I asked her, is going on with this commercial? Is this stuff true? Are you trying to block much-needed reforms? Are you making hundreds of thousands of dollars protecting failing teachers? 

“There’s not a proliferation of bad teachers,” she said. “There are too many other variables that impact teaching and learning. To blame teachers unions for what they perceive as the demise of public education is a stretch.” 

Then why are you the bad guys in this commercial? There are big-time political donors who say you’re making schools worse. 

Because, she said, “Education is big business in their eyes. As long as it’s under a public domain, they don’t have the options to do everything they need to do.” 

There are certainly flaws in public education’s sprawling system of reporting how money gets spent, and how well kids are learning in their classes. Absolutely no one, not even entrenched teachers-union officials like Trujillo, would argue everything’s running smoothly. But there is, she said, “some semblance of guidance and transparency in this process.”

Trujillo thinks companies want to privatize the whole thing, from resources to mentoring. Having a bunch of unions members squawking over their rights as public employees puts a crimp in that plan. Teachers in a union would also seem less likely to fall into line when given bad instructions by bosses who run schools like a business. \

Plus, teachers are great! We all love teachers. But union folk? They can be made into boogeymen. 

“This is an agenda set by Grover Norquist (famous for making lawmakers sign a pledge not to raise taxes) and others who believe unions are barriers to them making money,” Trujillo said. “In this state, with this current administration, there are goals set up for our governor to meet and she hasn’t been able to meet them because, I think, we have a sufficient group of legislators that are proactive and have her toe the line.” 

The reforms Martinez is pushing are backed by business interests who want to do things like let kids get all their schooling on the internet from home. The governor worked hard, even calling those who opposed her “immoral,” to make it law that children are automatically held back by the state if they don’t  pass a third-grade reading test. Fail that test, Martinez says, and you should have to repeat the entire grade. The only reason this didn’t happen is a lack of Republican majorities in the legislature. 

Smaller class sizes means better education for kids. That’s indisputable. What is very, very disputable is whether holding back third graders who struggle with reading is good for their educations. Why would Martinez ignore important data to favor the latter over the former? 

“It’s not about good outcomes for kids,” Trujillo said. “If it was, they would stop fighting the funding of public education and undermining and sabotaging (student-evaluation) outcomes by creating baloney benchmarks.”

ISPAC has stressed over and over that mandatory retention doesn’t work, and that the Florida model of education reform, backed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and a swarm of business interests, won’t help children be better at reading or writing or math or history or any other subject. 

A lot of good journalism has been produced to document the public-education disaster unfolding in Florida in the wake of the reform movement. Just this week, the Washington Post noted that the Florida Board of Education actually voted to lower the passing grade for its mandatory-flunking test because so many students had failed and would otherwise have had to get held back. 

This is education-reform politics at the highest office in New Mexico: A stupid commercial painting teachers as villains, created by corporate interests who want to swallow public education so they profit from it. Rather than fighting on behalf of our public schools, Susana Martinez fights on behalf of the companies that hunger to control them. (Companies, by the way, that get sued all the time and aren’t very good at teaching children anything.) 

The governor, Trujillo said, “hired union busters in her administration who can negotiate bogus contracts that hurt labor unions. She attacked our pensions. There are multiple levels of negative issues, and after a while all you can do is throw your hands up and just scream. That’s when we have to work harder, rather than giving up. We have to recognize that every time she wins a small victory, she’s closer to winning a war.” 

A war whose ultimate casualties will be children who aren’t educated properly because reform has become more about attacking unions and promoting a greedy agenda than helping them learn to succeed. 

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