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 V.17 No.50 | December 11 - 17, 2008 

Ortiz y Pino

Re-Reform

You may have noticed that school administrators, their teacher employees and their contract lobbyists were in Santa Fe in early November. They were demonstrating in support of the proposed “reforms” in the public school funding formula, a “reform” now calculated to come with a price tag in excess of $320 million.

I know, in this year of corporate bailouts on much, much grander scales, bailing out our state’s public schools for a trifling $320 million hardly merits mention. Like a lot of you, my knee-jerk reaction upon hearing the amount was to begin fumbling around in my pockets for loose change; certainly we ought to be able to come up with a pittance like that by merely passing the hat around.

Then I realized that instead of a sort of “penny for schools” tax to finance this bailout, educators were proposing a wee jump of 1 percent in the gross receipts tax. This strategy is apparently based on the principle that no one will even notice an increase so small, especially when the rewards are so great.

This is, I have to confess, an argument I have advanced in the past when urging support for a variety of local option gross receipts (essentially, sales) tax increases in Albuquerque. But the situations are different, and I would argue that this time we shouldn’t resort to the GRT to pay for more school “reform.”

There may be indications that more money has actually made public school performance weaker, not stronger.

First, the city has nothing at its disposal for financing new initiatives except the GRT. We don’t permit it to levy income taxes, and property taxes aren’t calibrated accurately enough to be fair or responsive for single-purpose initiatives. Municipal government doesn’t have revenue choice, but state government does.

In considering the full spectrum of revenue-generating streams available to state government, the gross receipts tax is the least fair, the most regressive, the one that hammers citizens with lower incomes the hardest.

If we decide we really do want to spend 320 million additional dollars on the schools, we ought to use the fairest and most progressive of all the available taxes: the income tax. It asks those best able to pay it to give the most. It can be scaled with exquisite precision to produce only the amount of revenue needed.

And best of all, we happen to have just gone through an exercise in reducing the income tax on our wealthiest New Mexicans (undertaken when we thought we had an unbroken line of budget surpluses stretching into the distant future) in three phases, so we would simply return to tax life as we knew it five years ago.

However, there is still that presumption that we will be making educational progress by finding $320 million of spare change. This “pocket money” would pour through the same K-12 educational pipeline that now carries about 45 percent (roughly $2.75 billion) of all general fund spending, a new spending plateau almost 12 percent higher than current levels.

Is there any reason to think that any improvement will result?

Lamentably, no; at least not if the past six years of vastly increased spending is any indication. For all the hundreds of millions of new dollars that have been thrown at our public schools since 2002, there is no tangible evidence they are doing any better than they were before. And since the dropout rate is worse, the graduation rate is worse and the number of our graduates who have to take remedial coursework in college is higher, there may be indications that more money has actually made public school performance weaker, not stronger.

I’m as ready to believe in the tooth fairy as the next guy, but it is going to be very hard to build public support for scrounging the needed cash based on that track record.

I have come to a different conclusion about what ails public education. Last April, the Education Commission of the States held a public meeting at the Hispano Chamber of Commerce to share its final report after studying educational systems around the globe and comparing them to our own. It was an eye-opener.

The report pointed out that U.S. schools spend twice as much per pupil as other countries ... yet we fall woefully behind almost all of them in results (I think we edged out Kazakhstan and Ethiopia). It recommended that we stop paying for 12 years of public education (since the last two years of high school are largely wasted anyhow) and use the billions that would be saved for beefed-up vocational, remedial and specialized instruction.

That qualifies, in my mind, as truly re-thinking our schools, not the kind of cosmetic “reforms” the educational establishment favors. It is therefore certain to be roundly denounced and rejected.

But if the alternative is to continue to throw good money after bad, we ought to stop expecting different results from doing more of the same and start rethinking our schools.

At least we might adopt the “think small” recommendation being advanced by the members of Think New Mexico in its latest report on social and political issues facing our state. They argue persuasively for establishing a cap on the size of our schools as a way to dramatically improve their performance.

That makes a lot more sense than doing more of what we’ve been doing (creating mega-schools) while spending 320 million more dollars doing it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

 

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