Biggest issue of 2013 may center on thousands of 8-year-olds
Would it be smart policy for the state Legislature to order retentions of thousands of third-graders who are in the bottom tier on reading scores?
Debate on that question will resume Tuesday at the Capitol.
At issue is whether local school boards or the state should decide how best to help poor readers become proficient ones.
Under current law, parents can -- for one time only -- overrule a school staff that recommends holding back a student.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez says this leads to "social promotion" -- a system in which kids are advanced to the next grade, even though they cannot do the work.
Martinez for three legislative sessions has wanted a bill to automatically hold back third-graders who score poorly on reading tests. So far, she has not gotten her way.
State Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, says Martinez's state-mandated retention plan was a copycat of a failed system in Florida.
A former teacher, Stewart, right, said legislators in January had a bill on reading that was mostly good. It would have added money and staff to help kids from pre-kindergarten through third grade become good readers.
The snag was the provision the governor wanted to force retentions, leaving parents without a say-so.
Stewart said Martinez's administration, for political purposes, wants to duplicate an initiative in Florida, even though it did not work well.
Florida kids who were held back against the will of their parents did not become better students. They became more likely to fall behind and quit school, Stewart said.
Democrats often call Martinez unwilling to compromise to find solutions. But forced retentions are an issue in which the governor has yielded on some of her demands.
In her first weeks in office last year, Martinez called for a bill requiring retentions of third-, fifth- and eighth-graders who were struggling in school.
Legislators said such a law would cause mass dropouts, especially among eighth-graders, who would give up rather than trail behind their peer group.
So Martinez, working with certain Democrats such as Rep. Mary Helen Garcia of Las Cruces, decided to focus on a retention bill that would force retentions of nobody beyond the third grade.
Kids who cannot read well by fourth grade are likely to lag behind, lose confidence and drop out of school, Martinez has said. She argued that a stand against passing along unqualified younger students must be made.
On Tuesday, the Legislative Education Study Committee will devote itself to reading issues.
It will start with a presentation from the committee staff on pre-K through third-grade reading policies and initiatives in selected states. Then staff from the Neuhaus Education Center will brief the committee on reading initiatives in Texas.
Rep. Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque, chairs the committee. In this year's legislative session, he called Martinez's plan "the third-grade flunking bill."
"It's a bill that says we want parents involved in their children's education until third grade. Then we don't care what they think," Miera, right, said last winter.
But other Democrats said the state's low rankings in academics persuaded them that a drastic step such as forced retentions was necessary.
The automatic retention bill failed to clear the House and the Senate in a 30-day session this year. In 2013, the session is 60 days.
Will the extra time matter?
It may not. Democrats such as Stewart have no confidence in Martinez's plan for forced retention of students.
In turn, Martinez campaigned on ending social promotion in New Mexico. So far she has insisted on state power to hold back underperforming third-graders.
Retaining the bottom tier of third-graders would equate to as many as 3,000 kids statewide. But drafts of earlier bills have contained so many exceptions that the number could be far lower.
That raises more questions.
If various low-performing kids were exempted from automatic retention, would social promotions really be eliminated, or would the change be mostly cosmetic?
Also, if mass retentions become law, would the Legislature year after year allocate millions of dollars to help struggling young readers through summer school, through more teacher aides and through early childhood screenings?