In a marked contrast to Gov. Susana Martinez's administration, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce said if he is elected governor, he will give school districts more local control over such hot-button issues as teacher evaluations and standardized testing.
Pearce - the only Republican to enter the 2018 gubernatorial race to date - said he also would contract with local businesses to start internship programs in high schools to help disengaged students earn training certificates so they can work in industries they enjoy, even if they do not go to college.
"I would push decision-making about education as close to the classroom as possible," the 70-year-old Hobbs native said during an interview at The New Mexican. He said education, as well as the economy and crime, would be the top issues during the gubernatorial campaign.
Though he stopped short of saying he would get rid of the teacher evaluation system or standardized testing, Pearce said: "I would trust superintendents to make those decisions.
"Why go through mindless exercises on testing and teacher evaluations?"
Pearce's remarks about reforming public education are far different in tone to those of the Public Education Department, which, during Martinez's administration, has drawn the ire of educators and others over what they see as an overemphasis on testing and an unfair teacher evaluation system. That evaluation process has led to two lawsuits that are pending.
Pearce said teachers are under stress to be "everything but teachers - we demand they be policemen, we demand they be truancy officers, we demand they be probation officers, we demand they be priests, pastors and counselors."
As a result, he said, they are demoralized and leave the profession.
"Just put 'em in the classroom and let them do their job," he said.
He said if New Mexico - which is generally ranked at or near the bottom in most national reports on public education - does not improve its education system, students will continue to drop out or graduate without the skills they need to get jobs. As a result, he said, "We're not going to get any businesses to come here."
Pearce tied the education system's failure to the creation of a pipeline in which disengaged youth leave school for a life of despair, crime or drugs.
"We have to catch kids earlier," he said, adding that a high school journeyman training certificate could help do that by preparing students who want to work as truck drivers, plumbers or carpenters to go directly into those fields.
Pearce, a seven-term congressman who served as a combat pilot during the Vietnam War, said regardless of who cinches the Democrat nomination for governor next summer, he is in for a challenging campaign.
Democrats running for governor are U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham; state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, of Las Cruces; political newcomer Peter DeBenedittis, of Santa Fe; and media industry executive Jeff Apodaca.