Students may be enjoying their summer vacations, but with the race for governor heating up, I write this article in the hope of moving education reform closer to the top of the campaign issue heap. The good news is that unlike so many topics with a partisan bent, Republicans and Democrats can agree: 1) New Mexico’s K-12 educational system has been in crisis for some time; 2) reform is necessary to save our state’s children from low-wage jobs and lives on the margins of our society; and 3) education is one of the greatest concerns facing New Mexico.Throwing money at the problem is simply not an option when there’s no money to throw. However, one state, Florida, has seen a series of inexpensive reforms improve that state’s educational output. Those changes also spread to Arizona, which—in addition to its controversial immigration law—passed Florida-style K-12 remedies during 2010. New Mexico should jump on the bandwagon and learn from the bright ideas adopted in these sunny states. Choice and competition are integral to Florida’s reforms. In that state, almost 20,000 students eligible for accelerated special education took advantage of the opportunity to use a voucher to attend private schools, and more than 21,000 students received scholarships averaging $3,750 from a tax credit program that opened private schooling to students from low-income families. While these are small numbers given Florida’s large student population, the programs helped create a climate in which public schools wanted to demonstrate their effectiveness for fear of losing students to choice programs.Another Florida reform is alternative teacher certification. Say a mathematician or scientist at the labs wanted to get into teaching. Under New Mexico law, that individual would have to go through an onerous system and take more than 30 credit hours of coursework in order to actually teach. Florida allows local districts to certify teachers and set up a group of institutes to aid would-be teachers without an elaborate process. Florida also banned social promotion—the practice of passing kids on to the next grade regardless of whether they have a grasp on the material. The state puts the onus on children (and their parents) to actually learn the material in order to advance from grade to grade. These reforms led students to improve their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Florida’s low-income Hispanic students scored about one grade level higher than the statewide average for all students in New Mexico. Yes, you read that correctly. Poor Hispanics there now outperform the average New Mexico student in public schools by a full grade level. Clearly, given the right reforms, Hispanic students learn at least as well as other ethnic groups. Florida-style reforms that can help all New Mexico children (unlike the racist Hispanic Education Act, which serves only one group of people) are the key to improving results here. One final change—not specifically implemented in Florida—that New Mexico policy-makers must also consider is shrinking school sizes. The Rio Grande Foundation has worked with think tank Think New Mexico to push a reduction in school sizes. It can be done without additional spending. Amy Biehl, a charter high school in Albuquerque, formed partnerships. So rather than build its own gymnasium, swimming pool, library and theater, it uses public entities. This is just one possible solution for creating schools cheaply. More importantly, studies have found that smaller schools have a track record of improving student performance. At the outset of Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration, hopes were high for education reform. He even expressed support for a system that would allow taxpayers to take a credit against their state taxes and donate the money to a nonprofit scholarship organization for low-income children. Unfortunately, Richardson never pushed the issue, and legislators never made it a top priority, so nothing happened. Nonetheless, choice remains one of the best ways to force traditional public schools to improve while creating innovative options for children. If vouchers are not politically feasible in New Mexico—and at this point it seems they are not—tax credits allowing individuals and businesses to fund educational alternatives are the best option.Liberals and conservatives alike must recognize New Mexico schools are in crisis, and no amount of funding will help. It is time for policy-makers to tackle the issue head-on, to try an array of remedies and see what works. Our children simply can’t wait.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Paul Gessing is the president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, an organization that promotes limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.