ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera is stepping down after seven years on a job where she tried to reform an education system in one of the nation’s poorest states amid constant criticism from Democrats and teachers unions over proposed reforms.
Public Education Department spokeswoman Lida Alikhani confirmed Thursday that Skandera will resign on June 20 — surprising critics and supporters.
Skandera told The Associated Press she will take time off before deciding on “new opportunities.”
“I love New Mexico. This is a proud moment,” Skandera said. “We changed the conversation about education.”
Deputy Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski will serve as acting cabinet secretary, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said.
Martinez said the state’s students and schools are better because of Skandera’s leadership and commended her for taking on teachers unions and “other entrenched special interests.”
Appointed by Martinez, Skandera immediately drew scrutiny from Democrats and unions for previously working in the Florida department of education under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
There, she pushed a new A-through-F grading system and reading requirements for third-graders for moving to the fourth-grade — reforms she’d later seek in New Mexico.
Not only did Democrats stall Skandera’s proposals, they held up her appointment for four years in highly partisan committee hearings. She ran the department as a designate until finally winning confirmation in 2015.
Unions fought Skandera over a teacher-evaluation system that initially based at least half the mark on student achievement scores, along with classroom observations. Skandera moved in April to lower that to 35 percent.
New Mexico also struggled to attract people to teacher training programs, despite efforts by Martinez to subsidize tuition, boost base pay and offer merit-based stipends to teachers and principals.
American Federation of Teachers New Mexico President Stephanie Ly said Skandera’s resignation is “welcome news” for the state’s teachers.
“We are ready to work together with a new secretary, and are calling on Gov. Martinez to name a replacement with deep and meaningful education experience,” Ly said.
But Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, a Los Lunas Republican and a member of the House Education Committee, said Skandera was never given the chance to enact her reforms to really change the state’s educational system.
“The unions came with a closed mind and were unfair to her,” Baldonado said.
Skandera cast herself as a truth-teller about the state’s educational woes, saying improvement can only come from accurate and often uncomfortable benchmarks.
Educational challenges abound in the impoverished state with the nation’s second-highest rate of unemployment. The Annie E. Casey Foundation rates the state 49th for child well-being.
But during a recent interview, Skandera said this marks the first time New Mexico has shown improvement in so many of the measures that gauge success.
The state’s high school graduation rate now hovers at 71 percent, higher than the 63 percent recorded in 2011 but still below the national average of 82 percent. The number of students participating in advanced coursework is also up and an additional 12,000 students are performing at grade-level.
“The thing I’m most inspired by is when you raise expectations, when you fundamentally believe that every child can learn and you pull together and make a concerted effort to build on a foundation together, I think the sky’s the limit,” Skandera said.
Skandera also worked from March 2007 to January 2009 as deputy chief of staff and senior policy adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
And she held several jobs in the California office of the secretary for education in 2004-2005 under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — including undersecretary for education, chief of staff and assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.
Associated Press writers Morgan Lee in Santa Fe and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque contributed to this report.
Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras