Posted at: 02/19/2014 11:02 PM
By: Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4
Chicago. Washington, D.C. London. In the last three years, New Mexico's education chief has spent more and more time in those cities, and others, outside of New Mexico.
4 On Your Side requested Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera's public travel records a few months ago. Around that time, KOB and other media outlets had requested Skandera to answer direct questions about numerous key issues at the Public Education Department – including new teacher evaluations and students testing – but often learned she was unavailable.
4 On Your Side simply wanted to know where she travels out of state and how often.
Common Cause of New Mexico, a self-proclaimed nonpartisan government watchdog group, reviewed Skandera's travel records obtained by 4 On Your Side.
"I can see having our secretary testify before Congress as a benefit to New Mexico and bringing light to our education system here. I can also see a benefit of having someone from New Mexico represent us on various panels," Viki Harrison, the Executive Director of New Mexico Common Cause said.
However, Harrison questioned Skandera's involvement on a number of governing boards for national, non-profit educational organizations that have a role in shaping the future of education in New Mexico.
"You know, there's nothing wrong with serving on boards," Harrison said. "But are there any conflicts of interest?"
Skandera is involved with Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, which is working on ways to develop new types of tests for students in nearly two dozen states. She's also involved with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA, which supports charter schools across the country.
She serves as a member of Chiefs for Change as well, a group of education leaders from multiple states. The organization is a part of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was the subject of a Washington Post story in Jan. 2013 for its connections to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
When asked if she perceives a conflict of interest in her role with the organizations, and if the funders of those organizations influence her decision-making, Skandera said, "absolutely not."
Skandera said she works as an advocate for New Mexico.
"And to champion. Most of the time when I'm asked to-- when I spoke before Congress, and testified, it was an opportunity to say here's what we're doing in New Mexico," she said.
Skandera touted a 7-percent jump in New Mexico's graduation rate and a report that Hispanic students in the state ranked first in the nation on Advanced Placement exams. She credited New Mexico teachers for the work, of course, but also some of the changes to education.
On her travel, Skandera said the organizations paid for the roughly $36,000 in hotels, airfare and food. She said taxpayers didn't directly or indirectly pay for it. She said her staff does not have to work harder while she's out of town since she's on-call "24/7."
"But I also have an amazing team here and I'm in constant communication with them. I have a great deal of confidence that I'm stewarding here what I'm called to steward, and also advocating on behalf of New Mexico," Skandera said.
Although nearly 1,000 teachers protested the state's education reforms a few days ago at the Roundhouse, Skandera said she feels like state taxpayers have not lost confidence in her. She said she's listening to the critics and implementing their ideas.
"Absolutely," she said.
Skandera said she will continue to listen.
"Never once have I said the policies we're implementing are perfect, but I have said we know that we know we're heading in the right direction. Not just because of our results, but because they're based on research and proven practices. And yes, we're going to tweak them as learn it, but we're going to stay the course because it's the right thing by our kids. And truth be told, that should be the question every single day," Skandera said.