Confirmation hearings for acting state secretary of Education Hanna Skandera in New Mexico took a decided turn towards the sensational yesterday, as testimony revealed details of the inner workings of what is looking more like a political machine advancing the combined interests of education "reformers" and the companies whose interests they are often found to serve. Skandera has been strongly supported by New Mexico's Republican governor Susana Martinez, but these revelations could throw a monkey wrench into the process.
Before we even get to the corruption, there was a detour into silliness, as those testifying sought to redefine what it means to be an educator. The Constitution of the state of New Mexico states that this post must be filled by a "qualified, experienced educator." Up until now, that has meant someone who actually worked in a school, as a teacher or principal. But Skandera has been filling the post for the past two years, as the "education secretary-designate." Skandera's education experience has not included any time actually working in a school. She worked as a senior policy advisor to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Prior to that she was a deputy commissioner of education for Florida's Department of Education under then - Governor Jeb Bush.
But Larry Langley, the head of New Mexico's Business Roundtable, is not concerned about Skandera's lack of classroom experience.
"Please understand that to be a highly qualified educator doesn't require you to be in front of a classroom," Langley said. "Every one of us in this room, I hope, are some kind of qualified educator. I've certainly learned things from the chair of this committee. I have learned things from the ranking member of this committee, and from many others. You have been my educators, and you have been qualified educators."
So according to this business leader, everyone who has ever taught anyone else "things" is now qualified to be secretary of education in the great state of New Mexico.
This issue was overshadowed, however, by concerns about corruption and conflicts of interest.
Hanna Skandera was among the "Chiefs for Change" connected via emails to Jeb Bush's Foundation for Educational Excellence. According to this report in the Washington Post,
FEE staff served as advisers to acting education commissioner Hanna Skandera. FEE, and, by extension, its donors, had great influence over New Mexico legislation. In a Jan., 2011, e-mail, Skandera directs a staffer from the legislature to forward all education bills to FEE's Christy Hovanetz for edits: "Can you send all Governor's office ed bill language to Christy, including social promotion?" Another FEE staffer, Mary Laura Bragg, wrote to Skandera, "I'm at your beck and call."
As Jersey Jazzman reported here:
Skandera was listed as a speaker at a 2011 conference sponsored by a virtual charter school chain called Connections. Then,
Last summer... Connections sought to open a virtual charter school in New Mexico. The Public Education Commission, a nine-member board elected by New Mexico voters, turned it down. But this January, Skandera overturned the PEC's decision. Now, commissioner Jeff Carr says the PEC may vote to challenge Skandera's decision in court.
And new testimony Saturday afternoon that revealed a pattern of misuse of public funds. Michael Corwin of Independent Source PAC shared detailed information which can be reviewed here. For example, Skandera:
- Directed the entire PED [Public Education Department] IT Department to spend two full work-days combing through non-PED held information in order to "create lists" and a "new public record" for use by Governor Susana Martinez's "key advisor" to use on a political attack against teachers' unions opposed to the governor's agenda. Misuse of government resources for political purposes may be a violation of the governmental conduct act.
- Paid Christy Hovanetz over $86,000 as a contract consultant. Hovanetz was at the same time a full-time paid senior fellow at Foundation for Excellence in Education ("FEE") who lives in Minnesota. Hovanetz used boilerplate legislation from FEE (below) to draft all of the Martinez admin education reform bills. FEE paid for Skandera's travel during the contract with Hovanetz while Skandera used its services to prepare the reform bill.
- Sole-source contracts with Teach for American instead of using the Native American Teacher Training Program through the Indian Education Division and UNM/CNM. Teach for America was paid $800,000 to recruit and train Native American educators and provide culturally sensitive training to non-Native American teachers. Only about 1% of that money went to recruiting and training Native American educators. 80% of teachers trained through TFA leave the profession after 3 years. Over 50% leave after only 2 years. TFA was caught double billing the taxpayers for the same services and had to return the funds over charged.
Numerous similar escapades are detailed in Mr. Corwin's detailed report, which is backed up by documentation.
These documents give an inside look at the extensive coordination between the ardent supporters of corporate education reform. In a nutshell we have government officials engaged in anti-union activities, directly serving for-profit companies, and bending the rules to divert funds to "reform" favorite Teach For America. Those of us who have uncovered these patterns are often accused of "conspiracy theories." But when you look at the documents here, it is very clear what is under way. Some of it may even qualify as a conspiracy, in that it may be illegal. But conspiracy or not, it is not serving the children of New Mexico well.
Update: Diane Ravitch has posted a full transcript of Michael Corwin's testimony before the committee considering this confirmation.
What do you think? ? Should we be concerned, or is this just the way the sausage is made these days?
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