SANTA FE – When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham fired her initial pick to lead the Public Education Department in July, she said she needed “a vibrant and ambitious new leader” to replace Karen Trujillo as soon as possible.
She found her candidate in Ryan Stewart, a 39-year-old Harvard graduate with a background in education reform who previously worked with school districts in Philadelphia and Palo Alto. Despite his lack of experience in state government, Lujan Grisham said she was convinced Stewart was the “man for the moment.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher. New Mexico’s public schools have for years ranked among the worst in the country — a statistic that Lujan Grisham has vowed to upend as part of an effort she has touted as a “moonshot for education.” In 2018, a state court ruling declared that New Mexico was failing its students, particularly those who are low-income, Native American, English language learners and students with disabilities. The judge in that landmark case, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, ordered the state to undertake the monumental task of reforming its school systems in order to improve education for those students.
As PED secretary, Stewart will be in charge not only of implementing the plans outlined in the governor’s ambitious campaign promises but also of overseeing the massive reforms mandated in the Yazzie case.
Searchlight New Mexico spoke to the secretary about his plans for leading the state’s public education system. The following Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Searchlight: You’re stepping into what might be the most high-pressure job in the state right now. How are you working with that pressure?
Stewart: Honestly, the pressure is a pretty big privilege. I don’t know of a better place to walk into than a state with a governor who tells her people to be innovative, be creative, and take a moonshot — and that we have to get this right.
We’re in a really exciting time. We’ve got this confluence of gubernatorial will and legal mandate to make the changes. The Legislature has been behind it, and we have the money to put behind it. It is a lot of pressure, and it will keep me up nights — but it’s a pressure that most chief state school officers around the country would certainly kill for.
Searchlight: Is the governor setting the priorities for education reform, or is she giving you the reins and letting you decide what needs to happen and how to achieve it?
Stewart: The governor has a vision for where she wants to go. I see my role as, let me understand your vision and I’m going to tell you all the policies, programs and practices that we need to implement if we’re really going to achieve that moonshot.
Searchlight: So are there areas where you and the governor disagree?
Stewart: I’m not sure she’s a red chile person or green chile person. But other than that, I haven’t found any substantive areas where we’re at odds yet. We’ve been pretty much on the same page.
Searchlight: What about the teachers’ unions — do you have any disagreements with them?
Stewart: So far I’ve had a great working relationship with the teachers’ unions. They’re excited about creating a new narrative about what it means to be a teacher here in New Mexico — that it’s a creative profession; it’s a job where you should be treated as a professional and compensated like a professional. Those are all things where I think we have to have very tight agreement. We won’t agree on everything, but so far I feel like the relationship has been great.
Searchlight: Some have criticized this administration for making big promises on education and then focusing only on undoing what the Martinez administration did, rather than putting forward its own plans for the future. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?
Stewart: I’ve only been here for about three months, and I’m very much in the understanding, listening and learning mode. I’m getting my own take on where we currently are and where we need to go.
But while I’m doing that, we’re not sitting still. We’ve got a set of strategic priorities that we’re really focused on and that we will continue to push on through the legislative session.
We are in the process of mapping out a longer-term strategic plan, which we’re going to be rolling out in in the coming months.
Searchlight: So you do have a plan — what can you tell us about that at this point?
Stewart: The biggest pillar of our strategy is making sure that our system is really attentive to the whole child — meaning that the vast array of cultures and languages across our state are honored and represented in the classroom.
We also need to be investing in things that research has shown to make a difference, like wraparound services, community schools and programs that connect students to assets in the community.
We need to re-frame the teaching profession here in New Mexico and make it attractive so that we’re able to have a strong cadre of highly trained professionals who are able to lead our school systems.
And we need to define what is it going to mean to be a New Mexico graduate. What should every single graduate know and be able to do when they graduate from high school? How do we make sure that the pre-K to higher education trajectory is compatible? We have to make sure the education funding and programming aligns with those questions.
Searchlight: What metrics are you going to use to make sure these ideas are actually implemented successfully?
Stewart: Traditional metrics are still going to matter, so we’re going to keep looking whether students are reading and doing math on grade level, graduation rates, matriculation rates into higher education and persistence through higher education. But some other things are going to be really important to measure as well. How are we doing keeping teachers in our classrooms? Are we retaining teachers for longer, and staying competitive with salaries and benefits? We also want to look at how we are doing at career and technical education, and measure how many students are able to earn industry certificates and be able to go right into high paying jobs.
Searchlight: It’s been almost a year and a half since Judge Sarah Singleton ordered the state to reform its education system in order to better serve its at-risk students. What do you see as the biggest obstacle in implementing those reforms?
Stewart: The first challenge we’re facing is making sure that the money we’re spending on programs for at-risk students are actually reaching those at-risk students. The system we have wasn’t designed to target and capture whether or not at-risk students are benefiting from those programs, so we need to build the software tracking systems as well as the budget approval and review systems that will show where our at-risk money is going, how it’s being spent and how effective it is.
We really need to have a cooperative, collaborative, working relationship with all our schools. In the past PED has operated more as a compliance organization, and I think you can only get quite so far if everything is a hammer and a stick.
Searchlight: It sounds like you’re saying the department should be allowing for districts to make their own decisions. But the New Mexico Constitution calls for a uniform education system across the state. How can you achieve a uniform education system while emphasizing local control?
Stewart: I think the ultimate goal isn’t uniformity. The ultimate goal is academic success for all kids. What one district needs may differ a little bit from what other districts need. We need to understand the programs we’re implementing, what success we’re seeing and what failures we’re seeing. But that’s going to look very different in Albuquerque than it’s going to look in, say, Deming.
Searchlight: New Mexico’s special education system is in especially bad shape. We’ve reported over the past year on excessive and sometimes illegal discipline of kids with disabilities, about districts restraining and secluding students and then lying about it to parents and the government and other practices that are traumatizing special education students. Do you have any strategy in place to respond to these problems?
Stewart: I’m not fully informed on the specific incidents that you’re speaking about. But speaking more generally, I would say that we want to be doing everything we can to educate our special education students in the general education setting, in the least restrictive environment possible.
And we need to make sure that their rights are protected at all times — so where we see those incidents and see a need for improvement then that’s where we need to be focusing our attention and resources and making sure that we’re getting the right kinds of interventions, trainings, programs, corrective actions in place so that those things don’t happen.
Searchlight: What’s going to be your top priority for 2020?
Stewart: We’ve been incredibly excited so far about the response we’ve had to our extended learning programs and K-5 Plus [a program that extends the school year for students in those grades], and I’ll be working during the January legislative session to expand those programs. Another priority is to make sure we get the right amount of funding to support our at-risk students. And finally, we need to make sure that we are highly competitive in our teacher salaries.