Session to put Skandera back in spotlight with another confirmation hearing

Hanna Skandera

Hanna Skandera comes from a family of long-distance runners.

“There’s something in us — a certain perseverance,” said her father, Harry Skandera, by phone from Santa Rosa, Calif. “There’s a very strong value in our family — if you believe that something is right, you stick with it.”

Hanna Skandera’s perseverance has been repeatedly tested during her first three years as state secretary-designate of public education for Gov. Susana Martinez. The tumultuous period has been nothing if not a trial of endurance.

Skandera has been criticized, insulted and questioned during three days of Senate Rules Committee confirmation hearings, and she has been berated by educators who do not think she understands or respects them.

Most of the time, Skandera maintains her composure while flashing a confident smile. Once — in one of those confirmation hearings — she broke down in tears for a few seconds. During a recent Albuquerque-based forum with teachers regarding the new and unpopular teacher-evaluation system, she reportedly lost her cool at least once.

But Skandera hasn’t yet given up on her initiatives: the A-F school grading system, teacher evaluations and Gov. Susana Martinez’s so-called social-promotion bill that would hold back third-graders who cannot read at grade level.

Told that she sticks to her message well, Skandera, 40, said, “It’s not a message. It’s a conviction.”

As she enters into her fourth legislative session — one that in many ways may be a mandate of Martinez’s attempts to reform education in New Mexico — Skandera will be in the spotlight once again. Lawmakers will be asked again to either confirm her, and remove the “designate” from her title, or remove her from her job.

Rules Committee Chairwoman Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said she will schedule yet another confirmation hearing for Skandera in the coming weeks. If the committee passes the matter on to the Senate, that body of 42 will ultimately determine whether she will continue as the face of Martinez’s education reforms.

The Rules Committee did not schedule a confirmation hearing for Skandera in 2011 or 2012. Last year, it set up three hearings without determining whether or not to recommend she be confirmed.

Supporters praise Skandera for pushing the state’s new A-F school grading system into law. But critics — including a cadre of Los Alamos scientists — say that system is impossible for most to understand.

Supporters say Skandera’s new teacher-evaluation system — implemented by department rule after the Legislature failed to pass legislation to enact it — will hold teachers accountable for students’ continued achievement and reward highly effective instructors. Critics say the system relies too much on test-score data (50 percent of the evaluation) and besides, Skandera has never been a teacher, so she doesn’t understand what teaching is about.

Supporters claim Skandera’s efforts to implement intervention, remediation and retention for third-graders who cannot read to grade level will, in turn, lead to academic success and economic power within the state. Critics say the plan is full of holes and that parents, and not the state, should decide whether or not to keep their child back a grade.

Some of her other decisions have raised questions as well. Skandera has overruled the Public Education Commission on applications for state charter schools. She supported the newly chartered, online New Mexico Connections Virtual Academy in Santa Fe, which is overseen by a private corporation. She has pushed for merit pay for effective teachers, offered $5,000 stipends to draw good teachers to low-performing schools, and redirected money from general obligation bonds from textbooks and materials to reward teachers at top-ranking schools.

“I don’t believe she is qualified [to be secretary of education] under the constitution,” Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said this week.

But Sen. Sandor Rue, R-Albuquerque, believes that “she has done a good job of initiating education reforms that are created by this administration, and she is committed to carrying them out. She’s put up with a lot of disrespect, rudeness, verbal attacks, and she has shown a tremendous amount of character in the way she has stood up to that. She puts up with an awful lot and continues to do the job that she is charged to do.”

What keeps her going? “Not every person wakes up every morning believing in what they do,” Skandera explained in an interview in December.

Out to win

Skandera’s background is primarily academic and administrative. She has a bachelor’s degree in business from Sonoma State University, a master’s degree from the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and fellowships from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. She served as CEO of the Texas-based nonprofit Laying the Foundation, a teacher-training program, and quickly moved up the ranks of both the California and Florida public education systems.

After winning the November 2010 election, Gov. Martinez offered Skandera the job of education secretary, calling her a “true reformer.” Skandera said she met the governor for a three- to four-hour discussion in Albuquerque sometime in December 2010 and accepted the job “within 24 hours.”

Skandera served as deputy secretary of education under former Gov. Jeb Bush in Florida, and critics often argue that she is simply adopting “the Florida model” of education here — such as ending social promotion and initiating A-F grades for schools.

“It’s not like this is what I know best,” Skandera said of her reform ideas. “These are research-driven decisions.” She maintains that every policy she and the governor are pushing has successfully worked elsewhere.

Stephanie Ley, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Albuquerque, contests that claim — as do others. Criticism and questions have arisen as many of the Florida initiatives have either failed, stalled or not quite lived up to their promise.

Education Week’s recent Quality Counts report, which judges states’ educational standing on a variety of issues, just gave Florida a C.

New Mexico got a D+. The state consistently ranks near the bottom when it comes to such comparisons, and its ranking has not changed much in the past three years under Martinez’s leadership.

Why is it taking so long?

“Fundamentally, we have done too little too long,” Skandera said. “I do know that something greater is possible for the state of New Mexico … if you keep your eye on that goal. What I see is a lot of adults losing sight of our kids. I think it’s happened too long.”

Ley doesn’t believe Skandera is keeping sight of the right goal here: “I don’t think she is focused on New Mexico. I think she is focused on getting what she wants passed.” She and other teacher union representatives believe that most educators in the state are not happy with Skandera.

Skandera said despite media reports to the contrary, not all teachers are against her, and many tell her she’s not at all what they expected. In talking to school and community leaders, she said, “What I hear out there is not often what I read in the news.”

Skandera quickly counts off her achievements: an upswing in reading scores at many grade levels, an increase in graduation rates and a jump in the number of A and B schools from last year. She also successfully earned a waiver from several No Child Left Behind mandates and has secured federal Race to the Top grants.

More importantly, she said, “Everybody’s talking about education at the dinner table. That’s ownership.”

Asked where she has failed, Skandera doesn’t supply specifics: “On a scale of 1 to 5, even if it is a 5, there is always room for improvement — including myself.”

Questions remain about unpopular and possibly unethical actions conducted under her watch — including procurement code violations (which the PED acknowledged and set out to fix), redirecting bond money (which she claims is legal) and potential conflicts of interest centering on ties with private groups wanting to do business in New Mexico (which Skandera denies). Last year, she told the Rules Committee that the only income she earns — $125,000 — is as secretary of education, and that she is not conducting any other private or personal business that benefits her financially.

She reiterated that claim this week, saying she takes no money from any outside sources. If she travels elsewhere to give a speech on education, she said, she does not take a fee — only reimbursement for travel expenses.

Sen. Lopez has asked the Attorney General’s Office to issue an opinion on whether Skandera violated any state regulations in some of these actions. On Thursday, Attorney General’s Office spokesman Phil Sisneros said the office is still researching that issue.

Love her or hate her

Skandera does have supporters in the business and political community, and there are some individual superintendents, principals and teachers who have spoken out on her behalf at public meetings. Paul Benoit, who heads the New Mexico School Superintendents Association, said it’s generally impossible to get the superintendents of all 89 districts to agree on any one issue, but he said it’s fair to say that some of the superintendents express support of Skandera, and some do not.

Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks, who tweeted some inappropriate comments about Skandera that compared her to livestock last November, declined to comment for this article.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd said he has nothing but positive things to say about his relationship with Skandera. “Sometimes we disagree, but ultimately that’s part of the work,” he said. “We both have different jobs.” But, he said, “She’s open-minded and available; she’s certainly accessible.”

Skandera has a fan in parent Adriana Cardenes, who wholeheartedly supports her — as a human being. Skandera serves as a Big Sister in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program to Cardenes’ third-grade daughter, Ariana Chavez. “She’s a wonderful person. Ariana loves going with Hanna. They go ice-skating, they watch movies, they cook. She talks to Ariana about her behavior and how she is doing in school. She came to see her in a violin concert at school.”

Even Skandera’s critics say she seems to believe in what she is doing, and that she is pleasant and polite in her dealings.

“But there is no dialogue about how we can meet in the middle,” Ley said. “I think it is a matter of not listening and not willing to compromise.”

Joe Guillen, head of the state’s school board association, half agrees. He said Skandera does listen and that sometimes she compromises, but he thinks the “PED is on a mission that is pretty straight-lined, which doesn’t allow for a whole lot of compromise.”

Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said Skandera is an expert at talking on point and sticking to her message “without any context.”

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Skandera should not be the target. “The buck stops with the Governor’s Office,” he said. He respects Skandera in at least one way: “Despite all the detractors that she has out there, she seems to hold her own pretty well.”

Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City and a gubernatorial candidate, said by phone that he has a lot of concerns about Skandera’s plans and her department’s failure to communicate its policies with both legislators and school districts. He takes issue with Skandera and Martinez’s decision to bypass the Legislature on the teacher-evaluation system.

“To implement that plan by rule violates the spirit of balance of power and the respect of each branch as its own entity,” he said. “You have to respect the Legislature and the process that is in place.”

If the Senate does not vote to confirm Skandera, Ley said, “I believe the governor will put someone in there who does the same thing.”

Rue agreed: “Somebody is going to fulfill that position as secretary or secretary-designate … and at the end of the day, what she is carrying out is what the executive leader of this state is governing.”

Skandera said she is in it for the long run: “I’m here. I believe we are beginning to see results. I want to walk that out. I want to continue improving education along with this governor … and we have a long way to go.”

Skandera’s father remains a bit perplexed by all the hoopla.

“If you have a deep conviction about something, then it’s about pursuing that conviction,” Harry Skandera said. “Maybe you take a lot of personal hits. You have to weigh the costs. I think Hanna counted the cost before she came to New Mexico, but I don’t think she had any idea that she would become a lightning rod.”

Contact Robert Nott at (505) 986-3021 or

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