State official discusses education

Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted by Freedom Newspapers with Dennis Roch, chairman of New Mexico’s Public Education Committee. Roch’s district encompasses five counties in eastern New Mexico, including Curry and Roosevelt.

Q: What is the commission doing while the Legislature is in session?

A: Right now, we are advocating for the PED’s budget request. For the last several years, the department has been on a flat budget. For the first time, the governor has allowed the department and the commission to ask to fully fund some of the projects we’ve been doing on a shoestring budget. A great example for the commission is that we have a new role with charter schools, and we’re going to have to have funding to make sure that works well.

Q: Why is education getting increases now?

A: We’re in a much better position as a state in terms of revenue, but the other factor is that for many years, the Public Education Department has been just a compliance agency. As schools are trying to innovate to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind and with charter school innovation on the rise, the department has to be more than compliance. It has to be a tactical assistance agency. I think the governor and his staff are recognizing that the demands on the department are higher and are allowing the department to ask for funds.

Q: You mention No Child Left Behind. How can the state best help kids with NCLB?

A: The strategic plan for the commission has several areas. We are to push proficiency in English language. If they aren’t proficient in English, they won’t succeed on the standardized tests … or in the workplace and in post-secondary education and in technical training.

Another way that we are helping support schools is by allowing for innovation. I believe competition breeds success. If we have charter schools that will guarantee they are pretty high-quality schools (it will push) the traditional public schools to achievement.

As a public school teacher, that might sound strange coming from me. But in Texico, I believe we do a bang-up job of delivering the best instructional programs to our students along with the support they need from their background. I think most schools desire to do that, but some could use the help of a little competition.

Q: What does a charter school have to prove to get a thumbs-up from the commission?

A: The PEC is engaging in training on figuring out what kind of bar we set as quality. My initial gut feeling on that — and I’m not talking about a specific school’s application — they have to have an instructional program that’s innovative and it has to be aligned closely to the state’s benchmarks, because that’s how we measure student achievement.

They also have to demonstrate that they have the capability to employ fiscal responsibility. If they’re going to run their own budgets, they have to show they have experienced staff that understands school accounting and the use of federal funds. We’re looking for fiscal responsibility, integrity and of course teacher quality.

Q: Are there legislative needs that have been understated in recent years?

A: The medium districts in our state are struggling especially with meeting the needs of special populations — for example, students with disabilities and English language learners. This isn’t just happening in eastern New Mexico, but across the state and across the country.

As the state looks at what we’re going to do to fund success in the schools, I would say the two areas of the greatest opportunity right now are to fully fund school services that meet the needs of special populations.

Q: Are there any areas where we can improve schools without much cost adjustment?

A: Here’s an area we haven’t been addressing enough, and that is in training teachers to understand student achievement data.

Let’s say I’m a doctor and my students are all patients. They come to me and I order lab tests for them. I get all the tests back, but I don’t know how to read the lab results — I’ll never be able to make a good diagnosis. I’ll never prescribe the right medications or help them overcome their illnesses. If I’m not trained to read the achievement data and identify the deficiencies individually in my students, I’m not going to be prepared to move them to proficiency.

Q: A lot is based on NCLB. Are you concerned it, and other programs, may only last as long as the administration that created it?

A: Actually, no. We in education tend to see trends coming. I think the philosophy of No Child Left Behind — even if the program changes — is with us to stay.

The reason I think so is because it’s admirable. Not only are we expecting all students to succeed, it’s also finally awakened education to the idea that you can’t leave any groups behind. You can’t say, “As long as our kids on average our doing fine, we can leave this group out. If the poorer kids don’t do as well, the rich kids will balance them out.”

Q: How can schools properly teach up-to-date technology and stay within a budget?

A: I think we’ve seen a lot of partnerships between education and the corporate world, like how Microsoft and Apple and other technology companies have made it a charity.

I think the governor’s laptop initiative has gone a long way toward cutting the achievement gap.

A larger school may have the opportunity or the resources to have a program that focuses specifically on software design. I know (Texico) isn’t going to have the student numbers to generate the funds to hire someone qualified in networking, but a larger school might.

In small districts, they might have different uses for that technology, but the demands for technology are no less. Online courses through a community college for concurrent enrollment (is one example).

Q: How much does higher education play in creating philosophies for public education?

A: Because the Higher Education Department is a new creation as well, there hasn’t been much crossover.

However, the commission is weighing in on what high school redesign may need to look like. And that is often centered around the complaint from some college and universities in New Mexico that high school graduates are having to take remedial courses because they aren’t prepared for college-level work. So we have to make sure the schools are stepping it up so not only are students ready to go and succeed in freshman-level classes, but if those students choose not to go to college and enter the workplace, they have skills required by employers to be productive.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge from now until you run for re-election next year?

A: There are times the Public Education Department operates independent of the commission. We are designed as an advisory commission, and sometimes they don’t ask or don’t listen to our advice. One of our challenges is to make sure we’re representing the needs of our districts and constituents. If we leave it to the hands of bureaucrats in Santa Fe, sometimes the decisions that come out of the state government aren’t the best decisions for the communities of eastern New Mexico.

Based on an interview by Freedom Newspapers Writer Kevin Wilson and edited for style, clarity and space.