Is the New Mexico Legislature Happy with 49th?

Change, Same Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.


When Gov. Martinez came into office back in January, among her top priorities was to turn New Mexico’s failing educational system around. To say that it is “failing” sounds harsh, but it describes reality. The problem is that, having had two opportunities to move towards fixing the problem, the Legislature has thrown up roadblock after roadblock in a (so-far successful) attempt to keep the status quo in place.

First, the problem: According to the “Diplomas Count 2011” report from the Education Research Center, New Mexico’s real graduation rate is 57.1 percent. This is 49th in the nation. Only Nevada has a lower rate. The results are similar on the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a respected national test. On the 2009 reading version of that test, New Mexico 4th graders again beat the scores of only one other state.

Some attribute these poor results solely to poverty. While New Mexico is indeed a relatively impoverished state (it has the 5th-highest poverty rate in the nation according to the Census Bureau), this is no excuse for poor educational outputs. In fact, New Mexico’s graduation rate is more than 10 points lower than the other nine poorest states in the nation. These states average 68.5 percent, despite similar, low income levels.

This is all very depressing. So, what can be done? Well, Florida has had tremendous success in raising reading scores on the NAEP. In the last decade, Florida’s 4th graders saw their reading scores improve by approximately two full grade levels.

That is the model that Gov. Martinez brought to New Mexico, but that many in the Legislature seem hard-wired to oppose any reform effort. Yes, A-F school grading passed in the 2011 legislative session on a bi-partisan basis, but bills receiving bi-partisan support that would have banned “social promotion” stalled in both the regular and special sessions. Legislation that would have rewarded public school teachers based on student achievement also got nowhere in the regular session.

Gov. Martinez isn’t the only one pushing for reforms that succeeded in Florida. In addition to accountability measures for traditional public schools, Florida also has the most robust system of school choice in the nation. This consists of tax credits, vouchers, charter schools, and “virtual” or partially-online schools.

In keeping with the bi-partisan, cross-ideological nature of these education reforms, Liberal Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino introduced a “special needs” school choice bill in the last session. Liberal Rep. Moe Maestas introduced a similar bill that would have provided school choice via a system of tax credits. If passed, the bills would have enabled the parents of special needs and low-income students to choose their own schools rather than having schools chosen for them on the basis of geography. Both bills died silent deaths with minimal fingerprints from the education establishment.

This is not the first time that a Governor has attempted to push much-needed educational reforms through the Legislature only to be blocked at every turn. When he was Governor, Gary Johnson pushed for vouchers for the better part of his eight years in office, to no avail. Vouchers have been used in countries like Sweden and cities like Milwaukee and Washington, DC with some success, but aren’t even seen as an option here in New Mexico.

Simply put, the education establishment in New Mexico is not really interested in new ideas. It would seem that their preference is to simply increase education spending whenever possible. The claim of many is that reforms that have worked elsewhere simply won’t work in New Mexico, but that defeatist attitude won’t help our kids. Unfortunately for them, education spending has been tried and hasn’t worked. Spending increased rapidly during both the Johnson and Richardson Administrations, but to no avail in terms of results.

New Mexico children can’t wait for their legislative supermen (and superwomen) any longer. Every year that goes by without serious, broad-based reforms that provide real accountability for the schools and real options for children, we fail another group of children. It is time to give reforms that have worked elsewhere a chance here in New Mexico.

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.