The Senate Public Affairs Committee voted last night in favor of two competing bills that would create programs and funding, with involvement from parents and school district personnel, for the retention and remediation of students in elementary and middle schools.---

The committee voted 5-3 for Senate Bill 260, introduced by State Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Chavez, and unanimously for Senate Bill 474, introduced by State Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Bernalillo, and State Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Bernalillo.

State Senators Jacob Candelaria, D-Bernalillo, Tim Keller, D-Bernalillo, and Bill O'Neill, D-Bernalillo, voted against Kernan's bill. Two other Democrats, the chair, State Sen. Gerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Bernalillo, and State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Bernalillo, voted for SB 260.

Kernan explained state law allows parents to object once to a school's recommendation of retention for their child. But if the student does not meet proficiency standards for two years in a row, the parent loses their "right of refusal."

While teaching first grade for many years, Kernan never found "evidence that students promoted to the next grade do any better when they are not prepared." State Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Sandoval, said "social promotion" actually made school harder for him.

"If students do not read proficiently by the end of third grade," said Hanna Skandera, New Mexico's Secretary-designate of Education, "they are four times more likely to drop out."

Ivey-Soto said state law includes accountability for student retention and remediation, but it lacks the kind of specific programs and funding proposed in SB 260 and SB 474. Lopez said districts have different retention policies and argued for greater uniformity.

Kernan's bill relies on a $13.5 million appropriation requested by Governor Susana Martinez, addresses reading proficiency, and limits retention to grades K-3. Lopez requests $67.8 million for "small-group interventions" in, and retentions for, both math and science, in grades K-8.

Lopez and Kernan agree on the reasons why schools should not retain certain students. Alternative proficiency demonstrations, proficiency in a language besides English, disabilities, and a previous retention in grades K-2 would merit exceptions to their proposed laws on retention.

Keller proposed an amendment to SB 260 that would require greater parent approval in school decisions about student retention. Candelaria said Kernan's bill "infringes" on the right of parents to refuse retention.  Keller's amendment failed to attract sufficient committee votes.

"The decision" of whether to retain a student, said Ivey-Soto, "needs to rest with an educational professional and educational leader." "At the end of the day," said Kernan, "I do believe as educators we have to make that hard decision."

Kernan said her bill gives parents "more rights." It puts parents on the student assistance teams, lets parents veto educational interventions proposed for their child, and allows parents to promote students who lack reading proficiency but have 95% attendance.

Candelaria said only one school in his district received "Reads to Lead" funding.  He objected to the "below the line" concept in Kernan's bill. Candelaria said the state constitution requires "full funding" for public education, not targeting or means testing.

Kernan said no school below I-40 received "Reads to Lead" funding. Ivey-Soto said the state budget could not sustain the amount Lopez requested. Ortiz y Pino and Keller disagreed and pointed to the state's 11% reserves and $200 million surplus.

State Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Doña Ana, introduced House Bill 257, last month. Garcia's bill mirrors SB 260, but the House Education Committee has not yet taken up HB 257, as reported last week in the Santa Fe Reporter.

Senate Bill 640, introduced by State Sen. John Sapien, D-Sandoval, the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, and State Sen. Rick Miera, former chair of the House Education Committee, will compete with HB 257, SB 260, and SB 474.

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