Pearce: Fix education before expanding pre-K

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Courtesy of Pearce for New Mexico campaign

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-Hobbs, represents southern New Mexico in Congress, and is running for governor.

New Mexico In Depth is speaking with the candidates for New Mexico governor on the issues of early childhood, child wellbeing and education. Steve Pearce of Hobbs represents southern New Mexico in Congress and is the sole Republican nominee.  This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Sylvia Ulloa: What would early childhood education look like in a Pearce administration. And, if you are supportive of those programs, how would you expand them to smaller communities?

Steve Pearce: Before even talking about early childhood, I think it’s essential that we get an understanding of where the state is. Four things need addressing almost simultaneously: First is to expand and diversify the economy. Part of the problem with education spending is that it depends on a state budget that is 35 percent oil and gas; that’s very volatile.  Education reform is essential. Third is attacking poverty. And then fourth, crime.

We have resources being strained in all areas because jobs and pay are so absent. Across New Mexico, we’re faced with things that are really difficult for children. High poverty rates, an educational system that is failing kids, drug abuse that is some of the worst in the nation. And you’ve got teen suicides. The whole discussion of early childhood blithely looks past the problems and says we’re going to fix everything if we simply have this brand-new program. I typically don’t approach things that way. Let’s fix what we’ve got first.

SU: People argue there is evidence that an early childhood program helps mitigate a lot of these problems.

SP: Sure, those people can argue that. We about tripled the funding for early childhood education, and I don’t know anybody who says we’ve really reduced the problems of kids coming in to the first grade (ready). And let’s say they set up a perfect early childhood program. You don’t have any teachers there. Fifty percent of our teachers that are certified in the state refuse to teach today. They either hate the classroom or they feel in danger in the classroom.

I think it was the Carrizozo or Capitan superintendent who said he typically goes over to Eastern New Mexico (University) and interviews about 100 kids that are graduating, going to be teachers.

This year when he went, there was two. One was graduating, one was next year. Eastern typically graduates 60 teachers — they graduated one this year. Teachers are telling them, don’t end up where I’ve ended up. Please choose a different career path. Those are the problems that have to be addressed before you can ever talk about early childhood education.

SU: Well, let’s talk about K through 12 in New Mexico. How would you solve the teacher shortage? Would you continue the reforms made under Gov. Susana Martinez?

SP: We’re at the bottom of everything, and that’s not just the last eight years. Centralized decision-making rarely works and is not working in education. As a business guy, I found the closer you can get decisions to the operations, the more effective the decisions are going to be. I would send as many decisions down to the superintendent level — even to the classroom level — as possible. You have oversight coming from the PED, but let decisions be closer to the student.

Secondly, I would take the problems out of the classroom. That’s probably the reason our teachers feel threatened. They feel like they don’t have control over their classroom and they’re hating their job right now. Formerly, teachers would teach 30-40 years, even though they could have retired at 25. Now teachers are saying, I can’t wait till the day I can retire. In discussions I said, OK, I will acknowledge that we need to pay more, but if I doubled your pay, would you teach one day longer? And they said absolutely not.

And as you get into it, they say they’re held responsible for behavior problems, where parents are not doing their jobs, or putting the problems into the classroom. What we need to do most is let teachers teach. Have specialists deal with the problems, whether it’s behavior counseling or truancy problems or law enforcement problems. Don’t just jam your problems into the classroom and blame teachers.

If we return the love of teaching by letting teachers do their job, then I think we will do the most important thing to stabilizing the supply of teachers, to stabilize the learning that’s going on in the classroom.

AUDIO: Pearce on problems in the classroom

SU: Does that mean you support a community school model, with access to schools counseling and other stuff?

SP: Absolutely. We used to have mental health in almost all of the rural communities. When I talk to the Springers and Questas, Moras and Wagon Mound, they said we used to have counselors here, and mental health providers, and when we outsourced mental health to Arizona, we lost them all. We’re going to have to rebuild that, because every school system, no matter how small, report some very difficult circumstances. We have very bad things happening to kids that they should not be experiencing.

SU: Would you continue using the PARCC test?

SP: The PARCC test seems very difficult to implement. It takes days. Sometimes total inactivity is occurring among the students who are not in testing that day. That’s a very difficult path to continue. Yes, we want to be data-driven. So, I will talk to the education professionals and say, OK, how can we get the accountability? How do we know our students are performing at (grade) level?

But I tell you, I asked teachers, you do this testing and it’s usually computer-generated, the (scores) ought to be available tomorrow. Do you ever get that information back? And they say, no, never. It seems the testing is done to measure the teacher, not to measure the student. Testing is most valuable when we find the weaknesses. They don’t know fractions, they’re not going to learn the decimals. They don’t know decimals, they’re not going to move into higher math. So, let’s begin to assess and cure the deficiencies, at the point that we assess, not just later assess the teacher: Ok, you didn’t do any good; and we move the student along. That’s mindless. Let’s start testing in a way that is going to give good standardized results. We’ve don’t want one school district teaching to a lower standard.

AUDIO: Pearce on need to attack poverty

SU: I agree with you that we’re going to constantly struggle in education if kids are living in poverty. If your family is struggling and poor, you’re more likely to have stressors. Tell me how you plan on diversifying the economy. We’ve tried the tax-cut route for corporations. They’ve had one or two wins like bringing Facebook to New Mexico, but we still haven’t recovered all the jobs we lost from the recession.

SP: First of all, New Mexico is pretty hostile to businesses. When Intel came, we had testimony when I was in the state Legislature that it took nine years to get the permits. New Balance was going into Maine with a billion-dollar facility at the same time. It took 30 days to get the permits there.

Another piece of diversifying would be to start cutting the trees again. We used to have 123 mills. Now we’re burning down our forests instead of cutting trees. Balance thinning programs to restore the watersheds. I was just visiting with the secretary of Agriculture this past Sunday in Albuquerque about it. I feel very confident that we’re going to be able to restart that economy.

You’ve got to have blue collar jobs for people who are not going to college, but then for the ones who are graduating college with more technical backgrounds, (Spaceport America) is there and waiting. The state put $220 million into concrete and then began to wring its hands and say maybe we shouldn’t have done it. Once you pour the concrete, you better push it 100 percent. I would be pushing that to give high tech kids a place to land.

We get $7 billion into our national labs (and military), and we do almost nothing with it. The research triangle in North Carolina that is so famous, they got $70 million when I looked about 10 years ago. They do what they can with that, and we do almost nothing with ours. I think we can create high-tech economies. I think that we can create blue collar economies across the state. There’s tremendous amounts of things that can be done, we just haven’t had the vision, leadership or the grit to get there, and I’ve got all of that.

SU: I wanted to talk to you about social safety net programs. In Congress, you’ve been supportive of changes and cuts to food stamps. How do you do that when we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country?

SP: The last time we reauthorized, those changes were to keep people in prison from getting food stamps. That was a scam and we needed to block that. The current funding changes are to keep people from applying for food stamps in multiple states. We really think food stamps are there for the people who need them, not for people who can game the system. So that would be the funding differences.

Then, as far as the work requirement this year, you point out adequately that we have a high unemployment rate. Every report I looked at for New Mexico is probably three months old, but we have almost an equal number of unemployed and an equal number of jobs that are empty.

I can tell you that every town we go into, I ask employers (I know what the answer is), so what’s your biggest challenge? And they said finding employees who will show up and can pass a drug screen. I think that in instituting work requirements, we’re simply telling people, we’re going to help you get back on your feet. There are good jobs out there. We’ll help you if you need training. We’re gonna put you in an apprenticeship program.

That’s a very big part of anything I plan to do — apprenticeship programs in our schools, apprenticeship programs for people who are struggling to find better jobs, or trying to get into the labor market at all. And so, we’ll help people. But we do want them to start taking responsibility for themselves. The power of earned success is one of the most significant human experiences there is, and we just look the other way when people get down and out.

SU: What about how cuts to Medicaid will affect New Mexico? It’s one of the bright spots. Gov. Martinez approved that expansion. It’s not only given coverage, but also fueled our healthcare industry. What would do as governor with that program?

SP: We want the program to be there for the people truly in need. But right now, the rules will allow the governor to put a work requirement in. We don’t want to impede families that are struggling, but if you’re able-bodied, (between 19 and 59), without the responsibilities of a family, then we’re going to have a work requirement again.

SU: How you vote and how you view issues in Congress is a lot different than running a state. You’ve been in Congress since 2003, except for one term, and it’s been gridlock for much of the time. You’re most likely going to be dealing with a Democratic Legislature. How are you going to work with people to get your agenda passed?

SP: I work probably better across the aisle than anyone else in Congress. I actually get along very well with Maxine Waters. I think I’m probably the only Republican who does, and she gets along with me.

On immigration issues, I worked with Beto O’Rourke. We put in bills for several terms together on Indian housing. One of the lead ones on that is Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin). I worked very hard at getting things bipartisan. I’ve got my value system, but I don’t look at people who have a different value system with disdain.

You’ve got to respect who (people) are and who they represent, the same as (I) want them to respect who I am and who I represent. I actually think that’s going to be one of the areas that will surprise most people, this ability to get along. I know most of the people in the Legislature, have served with many of them. I’m not awkward going down to the House floor or the Senate floor and saying, hey we’ve got this problem, let’s figure out the policy on this thing. If we’ve got some personality clash, let’s walk past that, look at the policy and see what we can do.

I get elected in a 34 percent Republican district, one that is 60 percent minority. I think this idea that I can’t get along with the other team is one that is absolutely untrue.

Via People for Pearce

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-Hobbs, takes a selfie with students.

SU: To wrap up, how do you think as governor you can make lives better for children and families in New Mexico?

SP: Many of the problems we face have been allowed through decades in New Mexico: We’ve accepted the poverty; we’ve accepted the drug abuse; we’ve accepted the alcohol abuse; we’ve accepted a failing educational system and the status quo. I’m not much on partisan talking points. I just look at things and see how we can make them better.

I think my background in the federal government is going to be key. In my four years in the Legislature, I served on appropriation, and that’s going to be a big key to understanding how the budget works. Then, years of creating jobs. I go into almost every community and I can see jobs that are just ready to go. Ten, 15, 20, 30 jobs would really stabilize some of these rural areas you were talking about in the very first part of the conversation.

I’m the only one with experience at all three levels.

So much of our reputations is that we fight for people, and I think that’s what New Mexico is looking for. Democrat, Republican, independent, they just want to know your heart. And I think I have a heart for service. I think I have a heart for the people of New Mexico. And I think I’ve got a heart for the future of New Mexico.

Discaimer: NMID did not fact check every statement made by candidates in these interviews.