COMMENTARY: To quote the late Yogi Berra, its “déjà vu all over again” in New Mexico.
According to Education Week’s twentieth annual Quality Counts report, the Land of Enchantment again ranks near the bottom of the pack when it comes to college preparedness and student achievement. It’s a dubious distinction that places the state right behind Mississippi. Yet instead of grappling with reality, the response will likely be one of denial and acquiescence; denial that our policies are exacerbating inequality and acquiescence to the tired old refrain that poverty is the culprit; the result a fait accompli.
That attitude would be understandable were it not for an abundance of evidence to the contrary. According to a 2013 study of charter schools in Louisiana by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford, Hispanic students in poverty had “significantly better gains in reading at charter schools” than their peers; a gain equivalent to 58 additional days of learning. In addition, although 51 percent of Hispanic students nationally have below basic levels of reading proficiency, start one grade level behind their white counterparts, and fall behind each year, high-quality charter alternatives like KIPP have not only arrested this trend, but reversed it.
These statistics and others prove that change is not only possible, but probable with the right leadership, courage and vision to challenge an orthodoxy that continues to imperil the lives of our most vulnerable students in some of the poorest communities.
This attitude is bolstered by the legislative leadership, which continues to resist even the most modest reforms, including a scholarship program funded by tax credits for desperate families seeking choice for their kids — a choice likely afforded to most of those currently serving in the Legislature. Although that bill passed the House of Representatives last year on a bipartisan 38-25 vote, the bill (predictably) died in the State Senate. The same State Senate again punted on social promotion, despite the fact that research is clear that children who lack basic proficiency in reading by the fourth grade can expect a lifetime of academic and economic misfortune.
GOP should lead
In short, while paying lip service to equal opportunity, our legislators have done little to make it reality. And in the absence of leadership by the Democrats, the Republicans should and must make education reform a centerpiece of the agenda.
Three core policies should shape that agenda moving into this and successive legislative sessions: school choice; charter-school expansion, and incentives to attract and retain effective educators. Although the governor’s FY2017 budget addresses the third item, school choice and charter-school expansion are part and parcel of any meaningful reform.
The need for alternatives was clear to me last fall when I spoke to a group of parents, students and educators fighting to keep the embattled Health Sciences Academy in Santa Teresa open. Due to administrative mismanagement under the direction of a prior principal, the Public Education Commission voted to revoke its charter, displacing nearly 100 students, many of whom were forced back to public schools that were ill-suited to their particular needs.
Not surprisingly, not a single member of the legislative delegation from that area attended the event. Although resistance to school choice will be robust from the forces of the status quo, polling done by the Democratic polling firm Beck Research showed that 70 percent of Americans support school choice.
A paradigm shift
Finally, but of no less significance, is the change required in the paradigm we use to think of schools and policy. In recent years, the notion that self-esteem precedes achievement has gained popularity, prompting former Clinton Treasury Secretary and Harvard President Larry Summers to opine that the converse was true; that achievement is the bedrock of positive self-esteem.
The anti-testing movement, stoked by union resistance to objective criterion for teacher evaluation, has successfully convinced multitudes of parents to accept the creeping mediocrity that is becoming the hallmark of American culture. Dubbed “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” this attitude continues to excuse our lack of progress and in some cases, outright opposition to, meaningful education reform. For too many New Mexicans, this false compassion has resulted in forfeited opportunities and ruined lives.
“[W]e have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement,” opined Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr. in a commencement address that went viral on YouTube. “[And] we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece.”
It’s time to consign that mentality to the dustbin of history. It’s time for genuine reform, real standards, and meaningful choice.
Alexander Cotoia is a paralegal with the firm of Holt Mynatt Martinez, P.C. in Las Cruces. He is an education-reform activist having worked with Students Matter, a nonprofit organization sponsoring high-impact litigation to address educational inequities. He recently earned the CORe credential in business fundamentals from Harvard Business School.