In the coming days, governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham will take the first major step to fulfill her sweeping campaign promises on education – appointing a secretary to lead New Mexico’s troubled Public Education Department. Her choice will speak volumes – not only about her approach to education but also about her commitment to reform in a state that is primed for change.

With a Democratic majority in both chambers of the Legislature, the governor-elect is in a position to address what many regard as New Mexico’s gravest problem: the fact that it sits at rock bottom in national rankings of student achievement. The state is under court order to fix a school funding system that was struck down as unconstitutional for its failure to provide adequate resources for at-risk students.

So the choice of the new secretary will speak worlds about the degree to which Lujan Grisham intends to follow through on her pledge to “build a Pre-K-through-grade-12 education system that works for every single student and family.” Education experts are watching closely, and they detect a struggle between two philosophies on good governance.

Diverging paths

“In one camp, the feeling is that we need successful leaders who have proven track records of reform and the courage to make hard decisions,” said Fred Nathan, director of Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank that provides analysis and recommendations on statewide policy issues.

“There’s another group that thinks that the most important thing is experience,” he continued. “These are folks who have been in the public school system a very long time and are not as open to making changes and are comfortable with the status quo.”

With Republican Susana Martinez leaving office after eight years as governor, major changes are anticipated – more perhaps for education than any other area. There is little doubt that the court ruling will require a massive investment of money, and the next PED secretary will certainly have a major role in shaping how that money is spent.

Lujan Grisham’s transition team has declined to comment about possible candidates for the position. But a number of names have been floated in education circles, and Searchlight New Mexico reached out to those most frequently mentioned.

Cynthia Nava

Cynthia Nava, a former state senator from Doña Ana County who served as superintendent of Gadsden Independent School District from 2007 to 2011, is a favorite among education reformers.

They typically point to the fact that under her leadership, Gadsden – a low-income, predominantly Hispanic district that borders Mexico and Texas – beat the odds, with student performance improving to levels similar to or above far wealthier New Mexico districts.

Nava, who is currently New Mexico’s interim director of Teach for America, one of the leading national groups in school reform efforts, said she hasn’t been contacted by Lujan Grisham’s transition team. She declined an interview request from Searchlight.

Education reform advocates are championing her.

“We need so much more than small, incremental progress,” said Amanda Aragon, executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN, the local chapter of 50CAN, a nationwide school reform effort.

Aragon said she was lobbying for Nava because the next PED secretary needs “to be a great organizational leader and a visionary leader and a political leader. And to find someone that can do all three of those things well is, I think, kind of impossible.”

Familiar faces, long-term challenges
Most of the other names come from what Nathan called the second camp – longtime veterans of New Mexico education, rather than reformers. Searchlight New Mexico reached out to those most commonly mentioned.

Stan Rounds

Stan Rounds, an Albuquerque native, became a teacher in 1973 and spent his career in New Mexico. He was superintendent of Des Moines, Alamogordo, Hobbs and Las Cruces School Districts and a former associate superintendent of finance for the New Mexico Public Education Department. He also spent a year as a financial analyst for the New Mexico Legislative Education Study Committee.

Since 2017, he has been executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders, an association that represents the state’s school administrators.

Rounds declined to say whether he has discussed the PED secretary position with Lujan Grisham’s transition team. But he was eager to offer his opinions about what he sees as the most pressing needs for the state education system.

“We have once-in-a-lifetime – or at least once in several decades – opportunity where we have resources, we have a litigation that is giving direction from a constitutional policy standpoint, and we have a Legislature and a governor-elect who all have an interest in trying to find answers to providing for our public education children,” Rounds said.

He said the state needs to look at new funding streams for education that would move New Mexico away from reliance on boom-and-bust energy cycles. Rounds said one example would be looking at doing away with some existing tax breaks.

He said the state’s greatest education crisis is the teaching shortage.

“Today, as an example, we have over 700 classrooms in New Mexico that are being filled with substitute teachers. And that’s after we’ve a put a substantial number of alternative-licensed individuals into instructional positions in the state,” he said.

Ellen Bernstein

Ellen Bernstein has been a full-time classroom teacher in Albuquerque Public Schools since 1983 and president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation since 1999.

Bernstein’s national union, the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed Lujan Grisham in February, giving her a big boost over Democratic primary rivals. AFT’s New Mexico chapter donated at least $22,000 to her gubernatorial campaign.

Bernstein was among six educator union leaders named by Lujan Grisham to a 31-member task force charged with examining the Public Education Department.

She said she hasn’t been contacted by the transition office about the PED secretary job, but acknowledged that she is interested in the position.

“I’m thinking deeply about the kind of difference that I can make for the people that I represent. And that may be staying in the position I’m in and working with the secretary or seriously considering applying,” she said.

She identified several factors that needed addressing, beginning with pay. The current minimum salary for a new teacher in New Mexico is $36,000. “You have to have livable wages. People have to be able to support themselves and their families,” Bernstein said.

She also said the current accountability system scapegoats teachers. “The teacher evaluation has a large percentage of that value-added methodology that just feels to every single teacher like it’s a gotcha system. And changing that rule and all the rules associated with these evaluation designations would be an indication right away that the secretary of education has respect for the work that people are doing and plans to evaluate it in a fair and transparent way,” Bernstein said.

Gabriella Blakey

Gabriella Blakey began her career as a teacher at Albuquerque Public Schools in 1998. She has served as an assistant principal and principal in APS, as well as assistant superintendent for curriculum and professional development in Santa Fe Public Schools. She currently is associate superintendent for leadership and learning in APS’s Zone 1, which includes Albuquerque, Highland and Manzano high schools and their feeder schools.

Blakey said she was flattered that some had floated her name as a potential PED secretary, but said she is not aware that she is being considered by Lujan Grisham.

“I think that one of our biggest challenges is to increase the teaching profession and to invest in our teachers,” she said. “Because anything we do without investing in them will bring us diminished return.”

Veronica Garcia was New Mexico’s first Cabinet-level education leader, serving as PED secretary under Gov. Bill Richardson from 2003-2010. Since 2016 she has been superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, a position she also held from 1999-2002.

Veronica Garcia

Garcia initially agreed to an interview with Searchlight New Mexico, but the interview never took place and she didn’t answer questions emailed to her. According to the SFPS website, as the state’s first education secretary “she advocated for the passage of many educational reforms including the state’s Pre-K Act, Hispanic Education Act, programs that extend the school year for at-risk children (K-3 Plus), and rigorous academic standards that were recognized nationally.

Garcia was involved in a dispute earlier this year with Martinez’s secretary-designate of PED, Christopher Ruszkowski, who said the performance by Santa Fe Public Schools on the most recent accountability report was the “most concerning” among the state’s largest school districts. He called it a “district in crisis,” pointing to the fact that 56 percent of Santa Fe’s schools received either a D or F grade.

In August, Garcia told the Albuquerque Journal that Ruszkowski was retaliating against her and the district because she was the plaintiff’s lead witness in the lawsuit that led to a judge striking down the state’s school funding system.

The next Public Education Department secretary will face numerous challenges requiring a variety of skills.

“I find it to be one of the probably more difficult jobs that exists,” said Aragon of NewMexicoKidsCAN. “Obviously, it’s an appointed position, so your number one priority is absolutely to serve the students of New Mexico. But you were appointed by a governor who’s counting on you to serve them well. And I think it’s important to recognize that those two things are not always the same thing.”

Robert Moore is an El Paso-based independent journalist who has covered Western states’ politics for 35 years.