Robert Nott/Santa Fe New Mexican
A bill that would create a New Mexico Office of Special Education moved a step forward Friday as members of the House Education Committee voted to endorse it.
The vote on House Bill 285 was by a narrow margin — 6-5 — raising questions about its chances of passing both chambers with just two weeks left in the legislative session.
Several members of the committee, including at least one lawmaker who supported the measure, questioned whether such an agency would make much of a difference when it comes to improving the education of the state's roughly 50,600 special education students.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who supports the bill, has recommended about $33 million for the new office, but so far the Legislature has not appropriated funding to create the new office. Whether lawmakers drafting the state budget have an appetite to commit money to the effort is unclear.
The new office, possibly staffed with just a director, would fall under the state Public Education Department and focus on oversight of special education programs and outcomes, including gathering and distributing data related to student needs and progress.
Rep. Elizabeth "Liz" Thomson, D-Albuquerque, who introduced the bill, said it would help support special education teachers, who "feel like they are on an island with no support."
Thomson, the mother of an adult special-needs child, has said she's struggled to navigate the special-education environment in the public school system over the years and wants the new office to do a better job of advocating for families.
She and advocates who spoke in favor of the bill at a previous committee hearing said academic outcomes of special education children make it clear the current system is not working for them.
The stakes are high. The Public Education Department's latest student achievement data, collected in the 2021-22 school year, shows significant gaps between students who participate in special education programs and their peers.
Language arts proficiency was about 9% for special education students, compared to 39% for other students. About 6% of special education students statewide were proficient in math, compared to 28% of other students.
Contributed to the state's challenges in educating students with special needs are 193 job vacancies for special education teachers.
Thomson said the new office's director would be able to better coordinate with agencies involved with special education services to ensure they are working toward the same goal of serving students.
That would include recruiting and retaining special education teachers.
Some lawmakers on the committee questioned whether a new office with one employee — though the bill's fiscal impact report says it could require up to three employees — would make a difference in the way the state delivers special education programs and services.
"I need to understand why," said Rep. Brian Baca, R-Los Lunas, an educator and school administrator. "If these activities are not going on now there is no law in the state we can pass to get people to cooperate."
Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, asked Thomson if there is any similar office in another state that yielded positive results to show a new office would make a difference. Only after he asked the question four times did he finally get a response from one of Thomson's expert witnesses, indicating the answer was no.
"I find that troubling," Lane said.
The bill had its defenders, with Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, calling it a "a 'wake-up' kind of bill" that can help provide a more equitable education for special education students.
Another lawmaker who supported the bill — Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque — said she did so despite the fact it has "shortcomings."
"It needs more work," she said.
After the hearing, Thomson said in an interview she remains hopeful the bill will forge ahead but added she is a "little leery that we're running out of time."
The bill next goes to the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee for consideration.
Staff reporter Maggie O'Hara contributed to this report.
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