Will teach­ers unions flex their might?

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Nott [email protected]­i­can.com

When Gov. Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham an­nounced af­ter the elec­tion she was build­ing a tran­si­tion team to help gather data and cre­ate strate­gies for re­form­ing the state’s pub­lic education sys­tem, it was perhaps no sur­prise that five of the roughly 30 mem­bers of the group rep­re­sented teach­ers unions.

That didn’t come as much of a sur­prise to many ob­servers: Teach­ers unions have aligned them­selves with Demo­cratic Party can­di­dates and leaders for many years. They en­dorsed Lu­jan Gr­isham in the 2018 elec­tion — just as they had backed Demo­crat Gary King in 2014 against then-Gov. Su­sana Martinez.

The teach­ers unions also were ma­jor con­trib­u­tors to Lu­jan Gr­isham’s cam­paign.

Now, as Lu­jan Gr­isham em­barks on a 60-day leg­isla­tive ses­sion in which the fu­ture of New Mex­ico’s ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem will be a cen­tral topic, the power of the unions is a loom­ing ques­tion. Will their power be on full dis­play in 2019

and be­yond, or are they simply mov­ing back into the picture af­ter eight years of of­ten-bit­ter bat­tles with the Martinez ad­min­is­tra­tion?

Sev­eral Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors say they ex­pect the unions will have un­de­ni­able in­flu­ence, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to push­ing for higher teacher pay and changes in the state’s teacher eval­u­a­tion sys­tem, which has re­lied heav­ily on stu­dent test scores to mea­sure a teacher’s ef­fec­tive­ness.

“I have no doubt this new ad­min­is­tra­tion will be more sym­pa­thetic to union is­sues,” said Sen. Steven Neville, R-Farm­ing­ton. “”This ad­min­is­tra­tion will be more open to their wants, things like the teacher eval­u­a­tion sys­tem and teacher pay.”

Oth­ers say there will be lit­tle change — other than the lack of a union clash with the Martinez ad­min­is­tra­tion. The state’s three main teach­ers unions — the Na­tional Education As­so­ci­a­tion, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and the Al­bu­querque Teach­ers Fed­er­a­tion — found their ob­jec­tives in al­most-re­flex­ive con­flict with those of Martinez and her long­time sec­re­tary of education, Hanna Skan­dera.

In the spring of 2017, Skan­dera blamed the state’s teach­ers unions for “keep­ing us where we are” as she dis­cussed New Mex­ico’s lag­ging per­for­mance in K-12 education.

“They still have quite a loud voice,” Skan­dera said, “and if you’re not vig­i­lant, they do con­tin­u­ally take ground.”

For their part, the unions were con­sis­tent in their re­jec­tion of Martinez, op­pos­ing Skan­dera’s nom­i­na­tion and of­ten — though not al­ways — push­ing back against her ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing a teacher eval­u­a­tion plan, the state’s A-F school grad­ing sys­tem and ef­forts to hold back third-graders who could not read to grade level.

Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, a long­time ed­u­ca­tor, said the de­par­ture of Martinez might open new ground.

“I think there is go­ing to be a feel­ing that they have more in­flu­ence,” he said, “be­cause they were pushed away in the past.”

Stephanie Ly, head of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers in New Mex­ico, who served on the gov­er­nor’s tran­si­tion team along with her union col­league, John Dyrcz, agreed. She said unions have a bet­ter chance of work­ing with state leg­is­la­tors and the gov­er­nor to en­act change be­cause they are not be­ing kept at arm’s length.

Charles Bowyer, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Education As­so­ci­a­tion of New Mex­ico, who also sat on the tran­si­tion team, said the ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple in that group were ed­u­ca­tors, ad­min­is­tra­tors, po­lit­i­cal fig­ures and non­profit leaders — not union reps.

He dis­missed the no­tion union leaders had an inside track with a new ad­min­is­tra­tion, adding that he had no more of a say in what the tran­si­tion team rec­om­mended to the gov­er­nor than any of the other mem­bers of the tran­si­tion team. And he doesn’t ex­pect any ex­tra sway dur­ing the leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

“I think any change we see is built more around the plat­form that the gov­er­nor chooses to make, more so than the fact that we are unions in­volved in that change,” he said. “Ob­vi­ously, unions do a lot of work for the Demo­cratic Party, and we rec­om­mended and sup­port the gov­er­nor. But it’s not that we have un­due in­flu­ence with her be­cause we are unions.”

Among other pro­pos­als this year, the unions are push­ing leg­is­la­tors to sup­port higher teacher pay, ini­tia­tives to get more col­lege stu­dents en­rolled in teacher-prepa­ra­tion pro­grams, ex­panded prekinder­garten pro­grams, and ex­tra coun­selors, so­cial work­ers and nurses to help sup­port the men­tal, emo­tional and be­hav­ioral health needs of stu­dents.

But Ellen Bern­stein, head of the Al­bu­querque Teach­ers Fed­er­a­tion, said union leaders want much more for both the state and its ed­u­ca­tors.

“We would like to be re­spected for what we know about pub­lic education, about teach­ing and learn­ing, about what it takes to do all of that well,” she said. “We want to be lis­tened to and con­sid­ered with re­spect, and I think that’s what can happen now.”

ROBERT NOTT/THE NEW MEX­I­CAN

Gov. Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham signs the first ex­ec­u­tive or­der of her term Jan. 3, ef­fec­tively elim­i­nat­ing the state Pub­lic Education De­part­ment’s use of the un­pop­u­lar statewide math and read­ing tests called PARCC. Un­der a new Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tion, teach­ers unions could see more sup­port for their pro­pos­als dur­ing a leg­isla­tive ses­sion that is likely to cen­ter on the state’s pub­lic education sys­tem.

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