By Brenda Álvarez
Four out of five members of the Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education in New Mexico are pro-public education, and it is no fluke.
For change to happen you must be a part of the process, says Becky King, of Las Cruces. “You can’t be passive. Otherwise, you don’t accomplish things.”
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King spent nearly 40 years in the classroom teaching kindergarten and first grade. She retired in 2009, but remains active in her school community.
“I’ve seen education go from child centered to test centered,” reflects King, explaining that she and her students spent about one-third of the year preparing for and taking tests. “Educators need to get more involved outside of their classrooms and school buildings.”
Involvement led to change in Las Cruces.
Last year, two seats on the board of education were up for grabs in the general election. At stake was the amount of time spent preparing and taking standardized tests, and evaluating teachers based on their student’s test scores. In some cases, students they never taught.
For educators, 50 percent of their evaluation came from student test scores, plus an extra 10 percent if an educator used all 10 days of his or her sick time—even if an educator used one day of sick leave, it still counted toward the evaluation—potentially changing his or her rating from “effective” to “ineffective.”
While research underscores low voter turnout for school board elections is becoming the new norm nationwide, educators in Las Cruces turned out in force on Election Day. Just as important were the organizing efforts of educators to support two pro-public education candidates, Maury Castro, a long-time social justice rights activist and war veteran, and Edward Frank, a retired math teacher of 39 years.
King held a “meet and greet” at her home with the two candidates, attended events, and was among the many who knocked on more than 2,000 doors.
“When I went door to door, I found that most people knew a teacher or were married to one. They knew what was going on in the classroom,” such as educators not wanting to take leave to care for a sick child or an elderly parent, and being evaluated with a formula that has proven to be an unreliable, cookie-cutter method that leads to unfair and inaccurate performance evaluations.
“This was about getting out there and doing something,” she says. “Had we not gone door to door, it probably would have been status quo.”
Many school board elections go uncontested
Green & Write, a blog of the College of Education at Michigan State University, highlighted that in 2015 some states held local school board elections that went uncontested or where no one ran. In New Jersey, for example, 805 school board seats went uncontested. Of those seats, 130 had no candidate at all.
In Las Cruces, the new school board immediately changed the attendance policy so that sick leave wouldn’t count toward teacher evaluations. But New Mexico’s Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera threatened the board with a school takeover if the decision wasn’t reversed. The board complied to avoid further calamity.
Despite this overreach from the state’s top official, King says, she’s seen a shift toward more progressive and student-centered policies and adds, “the new board is still fighting for teachers.”