Rating Martinez on education


Editor’s Note: As her eight-years in office come to an end, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez is at a low point in political popularity. The state’s low rankings in educational attainment are partly to blame.  In this and related reports, Searchlight New Mexico evaluates the impact of Martinez’s two terms in office. 


“The measure of our success,” Gov. Susana Martinez said in 2010, shortly before winning her first term, “will be when New Mexico children have an opportunity to receive a quality education that allows them to chase their dreams.”

As voters prepare to elect a new governor, it’s time to take that measure.

Searchlight New Mexico examined 8 education-related claims and promises Martinez made during her two successful campaigns for governor. Most of those claims and promises came from versions of her 2010 and 2014 campaign websites dating from the week before each gubernatorial election, which are archived by the Library of Congress. One claim is featured on her personal website.

We used publicly available data from state, federal and nonprofit sources to test the truth behind each claim, and whether New Mexico has managed to move the needle since Martinez made it.


Claim: New Mexico ranks at the bottom of educational performance as compared to other states, despite spending more money per student.

From: Martinez’ 2010 campaign website

Rating: Misleading

The results that Martinez cited during her first campaign came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and did in fact place New Mexico students’ performance at the bottom of the barrel. The state’s ranking declined even further since then relative to the rest of the nation.

But her claim was misleading: It implied New Mexico was above the national median for per-pupil spending in 2010, when in fact the state was No. 32. As of 2016 — the latest year for which data are available — New Mexico had slid to No. 38 in per-pupil spending, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


Claim: “New Mexico is No. 1 in the nation when it comes to improving graduation rates.”

From: Martinez’ 2014 campaign website

Rating: Partly true

New Mexico’s overall graduation rate improved during Martinez’ tenure, rising from 67 percent in 2010 to 71 percent in 2017, according to the state’s Public Education Department. But New Mexico currently ranks 50th among the states, ahead of only the District of Columbia, which graduated 69 percent of high-schoolers that year. The national average was 84 percent.

The overall graduation rate also hides a persistent achievement gap: Subgroups of New Mexico’s high-schoolers perform worse than the whole.

Only 68 percent of English language learners graduated high school in 2017, and 66 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. New Mexico’s Hispanic graduation rate was 70.5 percent — about the same as the overall rate, but still 45th among the states.


Claim: “Gov. Martinez is especially focused on ensuring every child can read by the third grade.”

From: Martinez’ 2014 campaign website

Rating: Unconvincing

PARCC reading scores have nudged up since 2015, but fewer than 1 in 3 third-graders are scoring “proficient” or above. The percentage is even lower for economically disadvantaged students, English language learners and students with disabilities.


Claim: “New Mexico is now spending more money in the classroom than ever before.”

From: Martinez’ 2014 campaign website

Rating: True

By almost any measure, New Mexico’s spending on education rose to historic highs under Martinez.

In 2010, the state appropriated $2.28 billion for schools, a figure that rose $410 million, to $2.69 billion, in 2018. Total dollars to fund early literacy, pre-K, K-3 Plus, STEM enrichment, advanced placement classes and school breakfast increased from $48 million to $88 million.


Claim: “New Mexico’s Hispanic students are leading the nation when it comes to taking and passing advanced placement courses.”

From: Martinez’ 2014 campaign website

Rating: False

Course-level data broken down by ethnicity are not available. But AP courses culminate in AP exams, and there are solid numbers on those from the College Board, which administers them.

According to the College Board, nearly 1.1 million Hispanic/Latinx students took AP exams nationwide in 2017. They earned an average score of 2.39 on the exam’s 1-5 grading scale. With a 3 being the minimum passing grade, that means that 42.3 percent of those students passed.

In New Mexico, 9,900 Hispanic students took AP exams in 2017, with an average score of 2.06, and 30.2 percent passed with a 3 or higher.


Claim: Martinez will “continue investing in reform efforts that lift up struggling students and schools, better engage parents in their child’s education, reward teachers for their success in the classroom, and graduate more New Mexico students.”

From: Martinez’ 2014 campaign website

Rating: Mostly false

Some of this claim cannot be directly measured, but Martinez clearly saw her efforts as aimed at increasing high school graduation. In that sense, the claim is true. More New Mexico high-schoolers graduated in her last year in office than in her first year, both in percentage and in raw numbers. According to PED, there were 26,490 students in the 2010 high school graduating cohort, of which 67 percent got a diploma. In 2017, there were 26,587 in the graduating cohort, and 71 percent graduated.

Yet this summer’s decision in the Yazzie v. State of New Mexico lawsuit casts a long shadow over Martinez’ record on education. The case presented nearly a decade of evidence that the state’s public schools are not only failing children, but that children will be “irreparably harmed” if schools aren’t improved. In a blistering ruling, First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton rejected the Martinez administration’s claims that education is improving for the state’s children.


Claim: Martinez “Raised the salary of starting teachers by 6.7 percent and offered new training and support to thousands of teachers.”

From: Martinez’ 2014 campaign website

Rating: Mostly false

State law sets the minimum salary for teachers by experience level. That figure was $30,000 when Martinez’ tenure began. Legislators have raised salaries for entry-level teachers twice, most recently in the 2018 session, setting it at $36,000.

Yet most entry-level teachers are paid more than that because districts set their own salaries, so long as they are at or above the state floor. That is a local decision, outside both the legislature and the governor’s control. According to PED, the average salary for an entry-level teacher in 2010 was $45,218, which rose 5.4 percent to an estimated $47,638 in 2017.


Claim: When Martinez took office, New Mexico had “chronically underperforming schools.” The governor enacted “bold education reforms that resulted in the highest graduation rates in state history and unprecedented improvement in student test scores.”

From: Martinez’ current personal website 

Rating: Partly true

New Mexico began assigning annual A-F letter grades to each school in 2012. The grades are closely tied to improvements in test scores, according to PED. Compared with the first year of letter grading, more schools earned A’s in 2018, but even more earned F’s.

We quantified the difference between the 2012 and 2018 letter grades by assigning 5 points for an “A,” 4 points for a “B,” and so on, and averaging each year’s score.

This shows very modest statewide improvement. The average score in 2012 was 3.01 — or a very low “C” —  versus 3.02 in 2018.

Are New Mexico’s students making “unprecedented” gains in test scores? PARCC scores have generally risen since the Common Core-aligned exams were launched in 2015, yet up to 90 percent of some student groups continue to score below “proficient.”

In 2014, 52 percent of third-graders scored proficient or above on the state reading exam that PARCC replaced the following year. The change to Common Core-aligned testing was contentious in New Mexico and elsewhere, with other states seeing similar drops in scores, and large and vocal opt-out movements.

More on this topic:

On her watch: Governor-driven understaffing keeps N.M.’s kids at risk

Oh Susana! How NM Governor Martinez’s popularity eroded

Grading the Team

A look at the Martinez appointees who head the state’s three most important agencies for child well-being.

Public Education Department

Hanna Skandera, Secretary of Education, 2010-2017

Previous job: CEO of Laying the Foundation, a Dallas-based teacher training program. She earlier served as deputy chief of staff and senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, and as deputy commissioner of education under then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Major accomplishment: Oversaw the statewide teacher evaluation system and shift to Common Core-aligned PARCC testing.

Major messes: Both evaluations and PARCC were opposed by the teachers’ unions and Democrats, with the latter holding up Skandera’s confirmation until 2015. The department is still waging a long-running dispute with the federal government over cuts to special education funding. Though that dispute erupted during the Richardson administration, it was exacerbated under Skandera’s stewardship. According to a 2016 state auditor’s report, the mess could cost New Mexico more than  $63 million in federal funding.

Best quote: “New Mexicans can be proud as they look across the nation that there is no other state, actually, that has embraced this much change, not rolled any of it back … and begun to see all their objective measures going up.” — Albuquerque Journal, June 8, 2017.

Where to now: Skandera is currently editor in chief of The Line, a publication of the Frontline Research and Learning Institute. Frontline produces research and data on education-related topics.

Christopher Ruszkowski, Secretary of Education, 2017-present

Previous job: Deputy secretary of PED under Skandera. He earlier served as associate secretary in the Delaware Department of Education and taught social studies in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Major accomplishment: Secured additional state funding for schools, advocated for teacher pay raises and federal dollars to expand charter schools.

Major mess: Shortly into his tenure, PED proposed a series of changes to the state’s science standards that omitted references to evolution and climate change. After a seven-hour public hearing, Ruszkowski backed down and abandoned the proposed changes.

Best quote: “Every school in New Mexico has to embrace data. They have to embrace measurement. They have to embrace assessment. We can’t keep sending our kids to school every single day and not know how they’re doing.”— Las Cruces Sun-News, Sept. 21, 2018

Where to now: As of this publication, Ruszkowski is PED secretary.


Children, Youth and Families Department

Yolanda Berumen-Deines, secretary, 2010-2014

Previous job: Licensed clinical social worker in private practice, El Paso. She earlier worked for the El Paso Center for Children as director of training for its healthy marriages initiative, and for the Texas Department of Human Services.

Major accomplishment: Established the #SAFE initiative, which allows text message-based reporting of cases of suspected child abuse or neglect. The service receives 35,000 messages a year, according to CYFD.

Major mess: Under her tenure, CYFD struggled to fill hundreds of staffing vacancies and came under fire when several children whose families had been investigated by the department died at the hands of caregivers.

Best quote: Staffing CYFD’s child protection division is “like trying to climb up a very steep, ice-covered mountain.”— Santa Fe New Mexican, Jan. 31, 2014


Monique Jacobson, secretary, 2015-present

Previous job: Secretary of tourism under Gov. Susana Martinez. She earlier worked in marketing for PepsiCo.

Major accomplishment: Launched the million-dollar “Pull Together” media campaign designed to promote department services and streamline reporting of child abuse.

Major mess: Continued incidents of abuse and neglect — some of them documented in a May 2018 Searchlight investigation — raise questions about the department’s policies, staffing and oversight.

Best quote: “We all agree that our kids are precious and we need to protect them, but I think that how you protect children becomes a pretty difficult challenge to solve, especially in a state agency.” — October 2017, Searchlight New Mexico

Where to now: As of this publication, Jacobson is CYFD secretary.


Human Services Department

Sidonie Squier, secretary, 2010-2014

Previous job: Director in the Office of Family Assistance, a branch of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department that administers Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and other benefit programs. She earlier worked as an administrator in the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and oversaw welfare reform in the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Major accomplishment: Oversaw the rollout of Centennial Care, New Mexico’s state Medicaid program, following Governor Martinez’s decision to expand Medicaid eligibility to working adults under the Affordable Care Act.

Major mess: In 2013, Squier presided over what is perhaps the most controversial move of the Martinez administration. After the governor claimed to have found “credible allegations” of Medicaid fraud, HSD froze Medicaid payments to 15 nonprofit behavioral health providers, putting many out of business and leaving low income residents across the state without access to addiction treatment and other mental health services. The state attorney general later cleared all the providers of any criminal wrongdoing, but the state has yet to recover from the loss of services.

Best quote: “There has never been and is not now any significant evidence of hunger in N.M.”— KOAT, Sept. 25, 2013

Where to now: According to Squier’s LinkedIn profile, she is now “on sabbatical” in Colorado Springs.


Brent Earnest, secretary, 2014-present

Previous job: Earnest was Deputy Secretary of HSD from 2011-2014, where he administered the department’s Medicaid program, Behavioral Health Services Division, and Administrative Services Division He previously worked as a fiscal analyst for the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, as an associate with the Brookings Institution, and as a legislative aide to former Senator Jeff Bingaman.

Major accomplishment: Oversaw New Mexico’s Medicaid program at a time of major growth, while keeping costs to the state down.

Major mess: In 2016, whistleblowers within HSD alleged that management had instructed employees to falsely inflate the incomes of people applying for emergency food assistance, disqualifying them from a benefit they were eligible to receive. Asked to respond to the allegations in a court hearing, top-level HSD officials pleaded the Fifth nearly 100 times. Earnest was later held in contempt of court for failing to follow a consent decree mandating more efficient processing of applications for food stamps.

Best quote: “We have a skilled team, we have a dedicated team, and we are committed to coming into compliance.” – Responding in court to a question about what he is doing to comply with a 30-year-old court order to efficiently process public benefit applications. That order remains in place.

Where to now: As of this publication, Earnest is HSD secretary.


Searchlight New Mexico is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to investigative journalism. Read more of our stories on Raising New Mexico at searchlightnm.com

Help Searchlight New Mexico continue to report the news that matters to you. Contribute at http://searchlightnm.com/support-investigative-reporting/