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Rio Grande Foundation signs onto amicus brief in Michigan v. DeVos supporting non-public schools

The Rio Grande Foundation has signed onto an amicus brief filed Wednesday in Michigan v. DeVos, a critical legal dispute in federal court between a group of state attorneys general (including New Mexico’s Hector Balderas) and the federal Education Department over the availability of CARES Act funding for private schools. The Foundation joins a coalition of 38 state and national groups representing the interests of private schools and parental choice.

As Rio Grande Foundation president Paul Gessing pointed out, “The Rio Grande Foundation has long held that education dollars should fund students, not bureaucracies. COVID-19’s impact on America’s students was not confined to public school sectors. Congress allocated critical funding to both public and private schools with the intent of helping schools reopen safely and serve their students.”

Background: The $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act, passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, included an Education Stabilization Fund to support schools with the costs of safely reopening and navigating the crisis. The law directed the Department of Education to distribute these funds “equitably” between public and private schools and students but did not dictate exactly how the funds should be distributed.

On June 25, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued an interim final rule that gives states and local public-school districts options for how to fairly allocate CARES Act relief to private schools. Many states and local school districts refused to follow the rule. Nine attorneys general and four metropolitan school districts, including Balderas filed a multi-state federal lawsuit against the Education Department challenging the interim final rule and argued that the majority of the funding should be directed to public schools.

This amicus, on behalf of 38 state and national groups, represents the important interests of America’s private schools in this critical debate. COVID-19’s impact on education was not restricted to public schools. With more than 5 million students attending 33,000 schools, WILL and our coalition partners make clear that federal CARES Act relief is critical for the safety and education of the nearly 10% of American students attending private schools.

WILL’s amicus is joined by associations and advocacy groups that represent and support private schools and their families in Wisconsin, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and throughout the nation, that serve Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Islamic, Lutheran, other Christian, and independent secular schools, and that collectively educate millions of students.

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My family will home school this fall. Other families should have options as well.

The following opinion piece appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News on Sunday, July 26, 2020:

As the head of New Mexico’s free market think tank and a frequent critic of New Mexico’s K-12 system, many are surprised to hear that my two school-age children have been in traditional public schools throughout their educational careers. That will change this fall due to COVID 19 and the policies being imposed by the State. According to numerous reports, parents across our nation are doing the same.

This crisis and our response to it is an opportunity for policymakers to reconsider how education works in the State of New Mexico. As a reminder, New Mexico has perpetually found itself among the lowest-performing education systems in the nation. Innovative thinking, especially policies that redirect funding to students as opposed to bureaucracies, could have positive impacts now and in the future.

While we at the Rio Grande Foundation are often critical of the powers that be in New Mexico education policy, this is not the case regarding COVID 19 and the reopening plans. In fact, our usual criticism is a systemic one and that is the situation here. The idea that one model of schooling makes sense for all students in normal times is faulty. Now, with such widely-variable views on COVID 19 and the appropriate response to it (not to mention the different educational needs for students of different ages and abilities) developing solutions that satisfy everyone is impossible.

For my family with elementary school aged children, the combination of mask wearing throughout the day and “social distancing” being imposed was a deal-breaker. And, while I support “virtual” or “hybrid” learning for some children, I simply don’t think the schools or educators are ready to deploy them on a large scale in an effective manner. We saw this firsthand in spring when the schools suddenly shut down.

Hopefully, school systems have better plans in place now, but the situation remains fluid and chaotic. New Mexico students are already behind due to lost months at the end of last school year. The chaos of masks in the classroom and a hybrid/virtual model that is completely new and unfamiliar to many students and teachers is not likely to lead to improved outcomes.

That is not just unfortunate: it is tragic.

My family is blessed. We can make home schooling work and we’ve already spent considerable time preparing for this big change. Unfortunately, that is not the case for all New Mexico families, especially low-income and minority families.

The COVID 19 situation leaves no “easy” choices, but with so many New Mexicans looking for educational options or even taking on the task of educating their own children, shouldn’t the tax dollars they pay into the system follow the child? Shouldn’t parents have resources made available to purchase computers and other curriculum materials for their children or, if they prefer, shouldn’t they be able to send their child to the school of their own choice? All of these choices involve major time and financial sacrifices by parents in tough economic times. Rather than penalizing these families, we believe the funding should follow the child and help them directly.

South Carolina’s Governor just announced the state will use $32 million to fund low-income families directly this fall. The scholarships are worth up to $6,500 each. These are the solutions that should be happening in New Mexico. Families are paying taxes for a school system that in times of “normalcy” is considered “inadequate” (Yazzie lawsuit). With many limitations and adjustments being made now, that system and the families it serves now face greater challenges than ever before.

I truly feel for our children who have lost so much already. The Legislature and Governor have long claimed to care for our children. It is time to call their bluff and fund children, not bureaucracies.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility

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New RGF brief debunks LFC report on pre-K: Why Expanding New Mexico State Pre-K Won’t Help the Children Who Need Help the Most

Today’s Albuquerque Journalcontained a report which discussed in glowing terms New Mexico’s expansion of pre-K programs. The reality is not nearly so compelling as Katharine Stevens argues in her new policy brief “Why Expanding New Mexico State Pre-K Won’t Help the Children Who Need Help the Most.”

The question of how to expand “early childhood” programs in New Mexico has long been one of the most contentious public policy issues in the state. Recently, the Legislative Finance Committee produced a new report “Prekindergarten Quality and Educational Outcomes,”The report makes multiple positive claims about the effectiveness of pre-K that Katharine Stevens addresses in her new policy brief, “Why Expanding New Mexico State Pre-K Won’t Help the Children Who Need Help the Most.”

In her brief, Stevens discusses several, glaring flaws in the LFC report.

  • Correlation vs. Causation:The LFC report assumes that improved results among students who participated in pre-K programs is the result of those programs. The reality is that participation is voluntary and motivated parents are the ones who will enroll their children in such programs and take the time to ensure they get to school every day. It is no surprise that parents who value the program the most have children who perform better than average.
  • Failure to ConsiderRigorous, Randomized Studies of Pre-K Programs: One of the serious challenges of social science is the relative lack of randomized control groups. There are, however, two important studies of pre-K that use randomized control groups (unlike the LFC or other New Mexico reports). One such study cited by Stevens is from Tennessee and another involved Head Start.

New Mexico has dramatically expanded pre-K spending over the last decade, which provides the opportunity to add to the evidence on pre-K’s effect on academic achievement. Stevens notes, however, that even as New Mexico has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into pre-K its test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have remained stagnant.  

  • Finally, the LFC misuses the concept of Cost-Effectiveness. In public policy, Stevens writes, “cost effectiveness does not mean showing that the benefit of an intervention outweighs the cost. It means comparing various interventions to determine which ones yield the greatest benefit for resources spent to accomplish a particular policy goal.”

As Stevens concludes: “The fight for pre-K, however well intended, is the wrong fight for children who need our help the most. If New Mexico’s goal is to expand the school system and provide free pre- school to wealthier parents who otherwise have to pay for it, adding a pre-K grade to the public schools makes perfect sense. If the state’s goal is to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children, however, it is a deeply misguided approach.”

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COVID-19 must spur long-overdue reform to NM education system

The following opinion piece appeared in the Carlsbad Current Argus and several other papers on or around July 13, 2020.

Recently, a judge denied a request made by the Lujan Grisham Administration that the Yazzie lawsuit be dropped. That lawsuit claims that New Mexico’s K-12 system is “inadequate.” Many would argue that our K-12 system has long been “inadequate” due to the State’s poor outcomes.

We wholeheartedly agree that New Mexico’s education system has long been “inadequate,” though the issue is not a lack of funding. The ongoing COVID 19 pandemic has exposed the many inadequacies of our K-12 system as well. Parents (and when schools closed this spring, I had two children in public schools) were abruptly forced into the role of home-school teacher in March.

A return to “normalcy” is not on the horizon and that will truly challenge our K-12 system. In advance of the start of school in less than one month, the Public Education Department has presented us with a highly-restrictive proposed opening plan for the fall school year. The hybrid learning model (partially online and partially in-person) is a worthwhile effort, but even staunch advocates of online learning recognize that not all children learn well in a digital environment. That especially includes younger children.

The challenges of computer and broadband access in many parts of our State raise all kinds of additional questions and problems for students, parents, educators, and administrators alike.

The “virtual” experience this spring was cobbled together and disorganized. We hope for something better this fall, but with mask requirements for students and staff alike, social-distancing, and numerous other restrictions, there will be a big increase in demand for alternatives.

A recent RealClear Opinion Research survey of registered voters shows that support for educational choice show that 40% of families are more likely to homeschool or virtual school due to the lockdowns. The poll further found that 64% support school choice. In other words, home schooling, virtual learning, and private schools having more flexible learning models are all going to be explored and likely followed by increasing numbers of New Mexicans.

With so many New Mexicans looking for educational options or even taking on the task of educating their own children, shouldn’t the tax dollars they pay into the system follow the child? Shouldn’t parents have the resources made available to purchase computers and other curriculum materials for their children or, if they prefer, shouldn’t they be able to send their child to the school of their own choice? All of these choices involve major time and financial sacrifices by parents in tough economic times. Rather than penalizing these families, we believe the funding should follow the child and help them directly.

The Rio Grande Foundation has long advocated for school choice in New Mexico. But unions and the political establishment have stood in the way. With the advent of the COVID 19 epidemic we have seen a rapid disruption in traditional education techniques. Problems with our one-size-fits-all K-12 model have laid bare the true “inadequacies” of our educational system. The “old” model of students in one building in lines of desks will likely not return for some time and possibly forever.

The most innovative model available today is “Education Savings Accounts” or ESA’s. There are five ESA active programs in five states: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. While the details vary by State the basic idea is to allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts. Those funds can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, educational therapies, community college costs, and other higher education expenses.

ESA programs are less well-established than other “school choice” programs like charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, and home schooling, but the pandemic is a big problem and policymakers need to have big and innovative solutions. Now, more than ever, those solutions will not work for all students.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility

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Rio Grande Foundation Study: Albuquerque Public Schools Spend Big, don’t See Results

Comparing school districts in New Mexico is often challenging. Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) is one of the largest districts in the entire country. With that come certain “efficiencies of scale” as well as some serious drawbacks.

The answer is to compare similar districts with roughly similar demographics across state lines. Laura Abendroth a policy analyst with the Rio Grande Foundation has crunched the numbers in a detailed research project on the issue of school funding among various school districts of similar demographics. The paper is, “Albuquerque Public Schools v. Southwestern Regional School Districts: How Does Spending and Student Performance Stack Up?”

In advance of this project Abendroth considered numerous large school districts in states surrounding New Mexico. The primary consideration (aside from size) was demographics and poverty.

In addition to APS, Abendroth studied the Austin (TX) ISD, Fort Worth ISD, Denver Public Schools, Mesa Public Schools, and Alpine (UT) Public Schools.

Making solid comparisons across state lines is never easy. For example APS has the highest percentage of Hispanics and Native Americans of the districts studied, but APS has a lower percentage of “English Language Learners” than any district beside Alpine.

Abendroth found (during the 2019-2020 school year) that while Austin ISD’s spending is quite high relative to ALL other districts studied at $28,000 per pupil, APS spends the next-largest amount at $17,571. Denver spent $16,000 per pupil and the other districts all spent $11,000 or so. So, APS is a relatively big-spender on a per-pupil basis.

Indeed APS spends about 20% of its operating budget on capital projects while the other districts spend just 10% of their budgets. Notably, most of those districts have smaller overall budgets, thus making that capital outlay figure even larger in real terms.

Also, APS DOES spend a lot of money in the classroom. In fact, APS class sizes are just 10.7. Austin and Fort Worth are in the mid-teens per class while Denver and Mesa are very close to 20. Alpine School District has 23.6 students on average.

Unfortunately for APS students all of this spending and extra attention in the classroom doesn’t have the impact we would like. Across the board (in terms of graduation and 4thand 8thgrade reading and math NAEP scores) APS only outperforms Fort Worth ISD. To be blunt, APS taxpayers are not really getting their money’s worth.

While solutions are beyond the scope of Abendroth’s paper the Rio Grande Foundation has touted more robust “school choice” options, elimination of LEED mandates and “Prevailing Wage” laws both of which drive up construction costs, and reduction in overall District overhead.

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Understanding the Rio Grande Foundation

The Rio Grande Foundation often comes under criticism from the left. But sometimes we come under fire from the right as well.

For starters we are designated as 501c3 “education and research” think tank. We don’t make endorsements and we don’t “carry water” for any political party or politician. Various media outlets have called us libertarian, conservative, and free market. We call ourselves “free market,” but we don’t waste our breath and time arguing the finer points of ideology because we believe that our work is self-explanatory.

For starters, New Mexico is a deeply challenged state. We believe that a vast majority of these issues are self-inflicted. New Mexico lacks economic freedom and remains poorer and less well educated than our neighbors. We also spend a VAST majority of our time focused on state and local issues as opposed to federal ones.

Those issues broadly include:

  1. Size of Government: New Mexico has long been a state driven by government. Data show that state/local spending is too high and that government regulations make doing business in New Mexico less attractive than doing business elsewhere. We’ve worked on this issue from all angles including: all forms of taxation, subsidies and corporate welfare (notably film subsidies), but also LEDA, JTIP, and “green” subsidies.
  2. Regulation: Rio Grande Foundation has led the charge for “right to work” repeal of NM’s”Davis-Bacon” law, reform of government employee pensions, and against numerous “nanny state” regulations like plastic bag bans. We have also done extensive work against “green” programs from the Energy Transition Act to costly “green” building codes.
  3.   School Choice/Education Reform: Across the political spectrum New Mexicans agree that our K-12 system is failing. While politicians of both parties typically opt for some combination of more money, more time in school (pre-K), and some form of top-down accountability, the Rio Grande Foundation believes that parents and (to an extent students themselves) are better able to decide on the educational options that appeal to them. Charter schools are a good start and should be expanded, but more options are needed.

Additionally, the Rio Grande Foundation supports the US and New Mexico Constitutions, we stand up for free speech, gun rights, private property, and open government.

We don’t take on immigration, gay rights, or abortion issues.

So, there you have it. We at the Rio Grande Foundation have our plates very full, but we are making a difference in New Mexico every day. If that appeals to you, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today!

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New Mexico’s legislative defenders of Freedom

Who in the Legislature voted in favor of freedom and personal responsibility in 2020? We tracked it all on our Freedom Index and you can find out for yourself by clicking the link and plugging in your address (if you don’t already know who your legislators are). While 2020 was another tough year in terms of government spending and taking our freedoms, here are a few of the points of light in the Legislature. We’ll be highlighting a few of the best and worst from this session in the days ahead.

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The 2020 Freedom Index Results are out! How did your legislators fare on freedom?

The Rio Grande Foundation’s vote tracking tool, the Freedom Index, has been available all throughout the 2020 legislative session with bills ranked and legislators’ votes scored in what amounts to “real time.”

At the Rio Grande Foundation website you can access bill rankings and votes going back to the 2015 session. Click the logo below to find out who your legislators are (if you don’t know already) and for the 2020 Index and votes.

Bills are rated anywhere from -8 (worst bills) to +8 (for the very best). Some of the most important bills that made it to the floor of at least one house of the Legislature for a vote and their respective ratings and a short description are found below:

SB 5; -7 (worst of the session): Red Flag Bill infringes on gun rights, due process, and creates new opportunities for costly lawsuits against local governments;

HB 364; -6 Public Employee Give away

HB 83; -6 Creates new $320 million fund for early childhood

HJR 1; -5 Taps the Land Grant Permanent Fund for pre-K and early childhood programs

SB 98; -4 Changes New Mexico’s Davis Bacon (prevailing wage) law to provide costly new fines and penalties for businesses working on public works projects

Best Bills Passed

SB 72; +6 Makes changes to PERA pension system to bring it closer to full funding.

SB 96, +3 Increases school budget transparency

A few notes about this year’s scores:

Rep. Larry Scott (R-Hobbs) had the top overall score of +104.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen (D-Doña Ana) had the lowest overall score of -72.

Other top scorers include: Rep. Schmedes, +86, Rep. Candy Ezzell +83, Rep. Rod Montoya and Rep. James Townsend +82, and Rep. Jane Powdrell +80.

The highest scoring Senator was Bill Sharer +42.

Rep. Candy Sweetser was the top scoring Democrat at +6.

How did YOUR legislators vote? Check the index and tell them what you think of their voting record.

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Opinion article: “Free” College Proposal Raises Serious Questions

The following article appeared in several New Mexico news outlets on September 30, 2019 including the Las Cruces Sun-News.

Gov. Lujan Grisham has put forth a plan (set for debate and possible approval in the 2020 Legislature) for “free” college for New Mexico residents. For many families this may seem like an unadulterated good thing. And, as the parent of three who is pondering (and already saving for) the college educations of his three children, I totally understand that reaction.

But, from the viewpoint of an economist or even someone who is simply concerned about New Mexico’s future, there are several serious problems with this proposal.

Currently, the Governor and Legislature are salivating at the prospect of a $900+ million surplus in 2020. That number may be even higher due to the recent uptick in oil prices. The plan is for “free” college to cost “just” $25-$35 million annually. Unfortunately, we have nothing from the Lujan Grisham Administration to justify that cost. Given the tendency of government officials to underestimate the cost of new programs (the Rail Runner and Spaceport come to mind) it would seem that the real cost even at the beginning will be much higher.

Worse, unless some cost restraints are included in this legislation, colleges and universities located in New Mexico will have no incentive to constrain costs. On the contrary, they have every incentive to grow their bureaucracies and increase spending dramatically.

Another big problem with the proposal is New Mexico’s low-performing K-12 system. By nearly all indicators New Mexico’s students in K-12 are among the lowest academic performers in the nation. Is higher education really the problem when the K-12 system is failing?

It’s worth noting here that according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) 2018 report on higher education finance, New Mexico already spends 2nd most in the nation (as a percent of income) on higher education. If higher education spending is such a great “investment” for New Mexico, why do we remain one of the poorest and slowest-growing states in the nation (albeit with somewhat better numbers due to the Permian oil boom).

The fact that New Mexico’s already large investment in higher education hasn’t done much for our economy begs the next question: “Will there be jobs available for these expected graduates or are we training future workers in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and other faster-growing, more economically-diversified states?”

If the Gov. does take substantive action to reform New Mexico’s economy by reforming the gross receipts tax and generally taking action to make New Mexico more economically dynamic and attractive, perhaps then we can keep more of these young, educated people in the State. However, the University of New Mexico’s falling enrollment and available population data indicate that New Mexico is losing its “best and brightest.”

Finally, as if all of these arguments are not enough, it is notable that “free college” is “regressive” in the sense that a vast majority of the benefits will go to people of higher incomes. Currently, 27% of New Mexicans have four year college degrees. Generally-speaking it is the middle and upper classes that can attain that level of education.

While the Governor’s plan may open the path to a few more needy students, how many of the bottom 25% of income earning students in the State can take the time to go to college? How many of them are academically-capable? While a middle-to-upper class parent of three stands to achieve a veritable windfall from “free” college, it is hard to align this with principles of tax fairness and “progressive” policies so in vogue in Santa Fe.

These are just some of the many problems with the plan. Hopefully the Legislature instead considers some of the many ways to improve K-12 education in New Mexico and engage in much-needed economic reforms that will make our State more prosperous and thus attractive for young workers from all walks of life.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.


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Discussing the Gov’s plan for “free” college on KOB TV Channel 4

Rio Grande Foundation president Paul Gessing sat down with KOB TV to discuss the plan for “free” college. You can check out the story below. As of Thursday afternoon, September 26, we have not received any details in terms of the estimated $25-$35 million price tag for the plan.

That said, regardless of the estimated starting price tag, there are numerous problems with this plan. I discuss a few of them in the story. More concerns are outlined here.