By Dan Boyd, Albuquerque Journal – Throughout the years, the New Mexico lieutenant governor’s office has often been a lonely outpost in state government.
But Lt. Gov. Howie Morales could be breaking new ground for the position.
The Silver City Democrat has been given a big task – temporarily running the state’s Public Education Department – by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in addition to his constitutional duties of presiding over the state Senate during the ongoing 60-day session.
“Multitasking is always something I’ve been used to,” said Morales, who previously juggled work as Cobre High School’s baseball coach with his doctoral studies in education curriculum and instruction at New Mexico State University.
His current job-balancing abilities have even higher stakes.
A retired state judge ruled in July that New Mexico was failing to comply with its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate education to all students.
As part of her ruling, the judge gave state lawmakers and the new governor an April deadline to come up with a plan to comply with her ruling, which specifically pertains to Native American students, English-language learners and students with disabilities.
In an unprecedented move in recent state history, Lujan Grisham has turned to Morales as her administration’s public face for education-related issues, as she has yet to name a Cabinet secretary for the Public Education Department.
And Morales, a former state senator who was sworn in as New Mexico’s lieutenant governor on Jan. 1, brings some pertinent qualifications to the task.
He is currently the nation’s only Hispanic lieutenant governor and is also believed to be the only lieutenant governor with a doctoral degree in education, according to his office.
And he was a special education teacher until leaving the classroom in 2004.
“There’s a lot of work that’s ahead of us, and we’ve already jumped in to change the culture of how things are done,” Morales said in an interview Wednesday, referring to state-level oversight of New Mexico’s 89 school districts and charter schools.
He also told the Journal he expects to be closely involved with PED even after a Cabinet secretary is eventually named.
When it comes to the landmark court ruling, Morales touted more than $500 million in additional public school spending proposed by Lujan Grisham for the coming budget year, but also said compliance won’t come down to dollars alone.
Lujan Grisham’s first executive orders as governor dealt with eliminating PARCC, the annual standardized test used by the state since 2014 for students in third through 11th grades, and directing Morales and others to come up with a new system by this summer.
“What the court case created was a sense of urgency,” Morales said, adding that many education professionals had already been calling for action to address shortcomings in the state’s public school system.
“We’re shifting the focus away from the result of what a test would show to more qualitative measures” that are aimed at giving teachers more creativity to do their jobs, he said. “There’s hope (among educators) there is going to be some relief on the way.”
Alhtough some previous governors have all but locked lieutenant governors out of the decision-making process, Lujan Grisham has not only given Morales oversight responsibilities but also the authority to start hiring PED deputy secretaries.
He has already started doing that, picking former Legislative Education Study Committee deputy director Tim Hand as one top PED official.
Morales is also making the short walk almost daily from the Roundhouse to the Jerry Apodaca Building, which houses the Public Education Department, and has been meeting frequently with PED staffers in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.
That might explain why most of the office’s walls are still bare more than two weeks after Morales became its new occupant.
“It’s been energizing,” Morales said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to start my term as lieutenant governor any other way.”