Opinion: Governor’s blame avoidance hurts New Mexico students

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In high school, I knew that being a student in New Mexico meant being a student in one of the nation’s worst education systems. Earlier this year, an article in The Albuquerque Journal outlined the statistics that some of us know all too well: out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, New Mexico ranked 49th in educational quality, 50th in K-12 achievement, and 51st in college and career readiness metrics.

For me, though, the most concerning statistic is our high school graduation rate. According to the NMPED’s most recent data, in 2016 the state’s high school graduation rate hit a record high at an underwhelming 71 percent, 12 percent lower than the national average, with the Taos Municipal School District over-achieving at 74 percent.

Over the course of her two terms, Gov. Susana Martinez has adamantly pushed for her cure-all for our state’s education woes: mandatory third-grade retention laws. Although her exact proposal has changed over time, the core function of mandatory retention legislation has remained constant. The most recent iteration of the bill, which has been shut down by the state legislature each year of Martinez’s tenure, would hold back 2,000-3,000 students who aren’t proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

Martinez and her administration believe that retention is the key to improving graduation rates. Hannah Skandera, her [former] Secretary of Education, said that “when kids can’t read by the third grade they are four times more likely to drop out.”

Skandera was right when she said that this statistic is “compelling.” She’s just right for the wrong reasons.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest organization of education professionals, officially opposes third-grade retention as a viable solution for increasing student achievement. In a public backgrounder on the issue, the NEA provides evidence that being retained is actually “the single largest predictor of dropping out.” The overwhelming majority of literature on mandatory retention laws conclude that, at best, they have no impact on student achievement.

Why, then, did Martinez choose to make these laws a cornerstone of her educational reforms? Some people say it’s just bad policy-making. Others say she’s simply acting out of loyalty to her party and special interest groups. Both of these claims, while certainly valid, don’t explain the full story. Martinez’s push for third-grade retention doesn’t stem just from political incompetency or party loyalty, but from calculated political maneuvers designed to alleviate her share of the blame for New Mexico’s education woes.

Her actions mirror what public policy experts Fritz Sager and Markus Hinterleitner call reactive blame-avoidance behavior. Martinez constantly uses this behavior to avoid public blame for highly visible problems. Take, for example, Martinez’s statements regarding low graduation rates. Martinez said that “the special interest groups need to fall back and take a look at what is in the best interests for our kids, and everything else will fall into place.” She shifts the responsibility for dismal graduation rates away from herself and onto vague special interest groups that she never specifies. At other times, she blamed Senate Democrats and their “political games” for the lack of educational improvement.

Gov. Martinez’s blame avoidance behavior is most obvious not in her words, but in her actions. For the past seven years, Martinez has fruitlessly pushed for mandatory retention legislation that the state legislature has made clear will never pass. She knew all along that this legislation would always fail in New Mexico’s political climate and chose to support it for that very reason. She was never concerned with finding a solution to our problem of low graduation rates and then claiming credit for it afterward. She was more concerned with avoiding the blame for the low graduation rates in the first place because it would have hampered her broader political ambitions. So, by futilely proposing this policy, Martinez wasn’t demonstrating political incompetency or her inability to break from party lines. Rather, she was doing almost the exact opposite, demonstrating her ability to be a calculated, power-consolidating politician. Martinez’s blame avoidance behavior has failed New Mexico’s students, and many will be quick to associate this failure with her brand of politics. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that blame avoidance isn’t exclusive to any political party. So, when we all head to the ballots next year to elect her replacement, we should be mindful of this type of blame-avoidance behavior in every candidate. Otherwise, we’ll end up seeing the same bleak statistics about New Mexico’s education system for years to come.

– Khweis is a Taos native and graduated from Taos High School in 2017. He is currently a freshman at Columbia University in New York.

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