The Senate Rules Committee on Friday opened Skandera's confirmation hearing, taking two hours of testimony from her fans and foes. Committee members will resume discussions Saturday with their own evaluations of Skandera. The full 42-member Senate probably will vote on whether to confirm her by Saturday night.
Skandera, 39, has been secretary-designate of the state Public Education Department for more than two years. But the Rules Committee, chaired by Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, did not give her a hearing until now.
Skandera said she did not know how the senators would vote, but was satisfied that she had worked hard and improved New Mexico's schools.
She deflected criticisms that she brought a political agenda to the education department.
"I'm an advocate of things that work," Skandera said after the hearing recessed.
Critics said Skandera, never a classroom teacher or a principal, is not qualified for the $125,000-a-year job that Republican Gov. Susana Martinez hired her to do.
Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said teachers each day remain mystified that someone who has never taught a public school class is setting policies and making value judgments about them.
"This (confirmation) is symbolically so important to them," Bernstein said.
Bernstein also said Skandera had failed in her job.
"The policies she's promoting are really hurting schools. It's all about the slogan, not the substance," Bernstein said.
Skandera has argued for Martinez's proposal to force retention of thousands of third-graders in the bottom tier on reading scores. Democratic legislators again this year have blocked the governor's plan, calling it unwise.
Skandera also has implemented an A-F system of grading the state's 830 public schools. Critics such as Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, say the grading formula is inaccurate, unfair and should be junked.
Skandera has plenty of supporters too.
About half of those at the hearing said she was a champion of kids and an agent to change schools for the better.
Letters of support for her confirmation came from Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, former Republican Gov. Garrey Carruthers and education secretaries of other states.
Shirley Crawford, superintendent of Capitan Municipal Schools, spoke on behalf of Skandera. Crawford described Skandera as a skilled administrator who will make diplomas from New Mexico schools more respected and more valuable.
Crawford also said Skandera was the first head of the state education department ever to visit Capitan, a district of about 500 students.
Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, the minority leader, sponsored Skandera's confirmation. His message to the committee was that every governor has the right to pick her cabinet, but that Skandera also deserved to keep her job on merit.
"I think Hanna Skandera has done a good job the last two years," Ingle said. "Have there been disagreements? Yes, there were. I have never seen a time when there weren't disagreements."
Ingle, like most of Skandera's supporters, downplayed her not having been a teacher. He said the secretary of education in the Obama administration, Arne Duncan, was not a teacher either.
Skandera's public education experience includes service as deputy chief of staff to former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and positions in the education departments of California and Florida, both under Republican governors.
One of the sharpest criticisms of Skandera came from Michael Corwin, a private investigator and a leader of Independent Source PAC, an opponent of the Martinez administration.
He said he had filed a letter with the Rules Committee alleging misuse of money by the Public Education Department.
"We cannot afford any more time under Miss Skandera," Corwin said.
The state Senate is composed of 25 Democrats and 17 Republicans. They are being lobbied heavily on Skandera's confirmation.
For instance, the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico is opposed to her confirmation. Its leaders said more than 10,000 emails have been sent to senators urging them to vote her down.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at email@example.com or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com