Bring back the state school board


In 2003, then-Gov. Bill Richardson convinced New Mexico voters that the only way to fix our chronically underperforming schools was to scrap the old state school board and put one person in charge. Him.

Richardson named Veronica Garcia as the state’s first secretary of education, and she spent the next seven years working to achieve his vision of reform, which included increased pay and training for teachers; a targeted focus on the worst-performing schools; and expansion of early childhood education.

That vision may have had a chance for success if Richardson’s lieutenant governor, Diane Denish, had won the governor’s race in 2010. We’ll never know.

The next governor, Susana Martinez, had a completely different vision. She picked Hanna Skandera as her education secretary, and they quickly dismantled everything Richardson had put in place. That was the easy part.

The hard part was imposing a new vision that focused heavily on standardized tests and merit pay for teachers,and was opposed by the legislature. The Senate didn't confirm Skandera until Martinez’s second term, and lawmakers never bought into her vision. They fought the governor to a stalemate for eight years.

Current Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has focused on early childhood education, which I believe will pay off down the road, given the enormous funding available to address the problem.

But for now, test scores show that our students are still underperforming in comparison to their peers around the country. The latest report on childhood wellbeing showed that 76 percent of New Mexico fourth-graders are still not proficient in reading, and 79 percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in math.

Clearly, changing from an elected school board to a secretary of education did not fix the problem. And so, Sen. Bill Soules of Las Cruces has cosponsored legislation that would put the issue to voters once again.

Senate Joint Resolution 9 passed the Senate on a 36-1 vote Jan. 30, but has been stuck in the House Education Committee since then (as of Sunday). With the session set to end at noon Thursday, Feb. 15, time would appear to be running out.

There is no simple solution. Switching back to an elected school board risks making the process more political. But it would also ensure more representation from all areas of the state, and more public debate in the decision-making process.

The new board would have 15 members, 10 elected from districts throughout the state and five appointed by the governor. Each would serve six-year terms that would be staggered so that new members would routinely be coming onto the board.

New Mexico is one of only three states, along with Minnesota and Wisconsin, that doesn’t have a board of education. There’s no data that proves conclusively that any one model is the best. But we know from the last two decades that our model isn’t working. There needs to be some continuity from one administration to the next. We can’t scrap everything and start over every time we elect a new governor.

As one of the voters who supported the change in 2003, I’d like the opportunity for a do-over.


Walter Rubel can be reached at

secretary of education, state school board