Democrats block plan to hold back 3rd-graders en masse but advance two other bills to shore up basic skills of students
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s push for state-mandated retention of third-graders who do not read proficiently may be dead.
The Senate Education Committee on Saturday blocked a retention bill on a 5-4, party-line vote. Committee Democrats all voted against it.
A similar retention bill was halted last week in the state House of Representatives, also by a bloc of Democrats.
The Senate Education Committee advanced two other bills that would pinpoint kids in the early grades who need extra academic help. Neither of those bills would require that students lagging in reading skills be automatically retained at the end of third grade.
Martinez’s secretary-designate of public education, Hanna Skandera, had urged the Senate committee to support the retention bill and end the “social promotion” of unprepared students.
Superintendents of smaller districts and the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce also spoke in favor the retention bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Gay Kernan, right, R-Hobbs.
Committee Democrats pulled together to table Kernan’s bill.
They were led by Sen. Bill Soules of Las Cruces. He said holding back third-graders en masse was a misguided idea built around a study from 1979 that had been characterized incorrectly.
That research actually showed that 84 percent of the kids who were not proficient readers in third grade improved academically and graduated from high school on time, Soules said. In addition, the same study showed that 4 percent of kids who read proficiently at the end of third grade did not complete high school on time, he said.
“There isn’t a benefit” of wholesale retentions, said Soules, himself a teacher. “There is a huge cost.”
He said he spoke not only of money, but of the damage that would be done to kids held back unnecessarily and made to doubt themselves.
Soules, right, said poverty was the most obvious reason why students struggle to read. He and the rest of the committee Democrats advanced two other bills aimed at identifying kids who are underperforming in the early grades and providing them the remedial help needed to succeed.
One bill is by Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, the education committee chairman.
His proposal would add $11 million annually to education funding for programs to identify young children who need help and make them proficient readers.
Sapien’s bill also calls for schools to track students who were recommended for retention by a school staff, only to have that decision vetoed by parents.
New Mexico law now provides that a parent or guardian has a one-time right to block a child’s retention. After that, teachers can hold back the child even if the parent disagrees.
But Sapien, right, said he was concerned that school staffs were not exercising their power to retain children, even in obvious cases.
Under his bill, schools would have to report to the state Public Education Department the progress of students who were recommended for retention but then moved ahead because parents objected.
This would tighten the system. Even Kernan said she thought his idea made good sense.
One Republican, Sen. Pat Woods of Broadview, joined with the Democrats in voting for Sapien’s bill. It cleared the Education Committee on a 6-3 vote.
The second bill advanced by the education committee was by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque.
It also called for early identification and help for students who are lagging. But Lopez’s bill focuses on math as well as reading.
She said both subjects were crucial, and schools should emphasize them equally in assessing children in the early grades.
Lopez’s bill would require an additional $68 million a year. She said she knew the money was not contained in a House budget bill approved last week. But, she said, the Senate could and should allocate the money as it moves ahead with its own budget plan.
Lopez, right, said her bill was the only one providing an accurate cost of what it will take to identify children who need extra academic help and then make sure they get it.
She said schools had lost ground in receiving the money they need, and their ability to turn out capable graduates had suffered.
But other legislators, notably Republican Rep. Nora Espinoza of Roswell, have said that student achievement never seems to improve, regardless of spending increases.
About half the money in the $5.9 billion state budget approved last week by the House of Representatives would go public schools.
The bills by Sapien and Lopez will be heard next by the Senate Finance Committee.
As for Kernan’s bill, Sapien said he did not believe it would be revived.
Much of the criticism of her retention plan was because it excluded parents from the decision.
Her bill also carried provisions to identify and help struggling readers in grades kindergarten through three.
But at the end of third grade, many of those 2,500 or 3,000 students still not proficient would have been held back by state order. Exemptions were built into her bill for children in special education or those learning English as a second language, among other reasons.