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Challenges await the new education secretary in New Mexico

A pedestrian exits the New Mexico state Capitol building amid winter weather on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Santa Fe, N.M.
Morgan Lee/AP
A pedestrian exits the New Mexico state Capitol building amid winter weather on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Santa Fe, N.M.

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tapped a Hispanic school superintendent from southern New Mexico on Tuesday to oversee the state's K-12 education system as secretary of the Public Education Department.

Arsenio Romero, a native of Belen and veteran superintendent of school districts stretching from the Mexico border to Los Lunas near Albuquerque, takes up the position on March 6.

The Public Education Department is grappling with surging absenteeism among students and below-average high school graduation rates. Student proficiency is lagging in subjects from math and science to reading and writing, even as the state has ramped up K-12 spending in recent years including for teacher salaries and programs aimed at expanding classroom instructional time.

According to the results of student assessments announced in September 2022, only 25% of those tested were proficient or better in math, and about a third were proficient or better in science and reading, and writing.

In a statement, Lujan Grisham highlighted Romero's "vision and experience" as a former teacher and principal. Romero will become the fourth education secretary since Lujan Grisham took office in January 2019.

The appointment was applauded by Fed Nathan, director of the nonpartisan policy group Think New Mexico, which is advocating for increased instructional time, improved teacher training, a more relevant curriculum, and more.

"We regard Dr. Romero as a reformer who has a student-centric view," Nathan said. "His openness to rethinking the public school system and his track record of successful leadership in New Mexico are critically needed."

Romero previously served as superintendent of Los Lunas Schools as well as Deming Public Schools, where some students cross the border from Mexico each day to attend classes.

Romero also oversaw school curricula as an assistant superintendent in the Roswell Independent School District, located in a conservative, oil-producing region.

New Mexico has begun investing heavily in early childhood education in hopes of making lasting academic gains, partly through an expansion of pre-K at public schools overseen by the Public Education Department, as well as with private providers.

Voters last year approved increased withdrawals from a multibillion-dollar trust to bolster K-12 spending and additional programs overseen by a recently formed agency, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

At the same time, lawmakers are responding to litigation from school districts and parents that highlights deficiencies in public educational opportunities for vulnerable children from minority communities, non-English-speaking households, impoverished families, and students with disabilities.