Reforms, Not More Money Needed to Improve Education Results

Bill Soules misses the mark completely in his article on New Mexico’s supposedly inadequate education spending and the supposed fact that education is not a priority. Rather than shedding light on ways to improve New Mexico’s educational system, he simply points an accusatory finger at parents and those who he claims aren’t making education a “priority.”

The truth is that education spending has risen dramatically both in New Mexico and nationally in recent decades. This shows that education is a “priority,” but in terms of results, the spending has not helped.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual “Public Education Finances” report, K-12 spending per-pupil has risen far-faster than the rate of inflation since the late 1990s.

Back during the 1994-95 school year, New Mexico schools spent $4,100 per pupil annually. Quickly, that number started to rise at a rate that was far faster than inflation with both Gary Johnson and Bill Richardson approving ever-growing education budgets. By the 2007-08 school year, the last year available, New Mexico was spending $9,068 per year, per-pupil, according to the census. If per-pupil spending had grown at the same rate as inflation over that time period, we’d be spending less than $6,000 annually to educate that same student.

Of course, the massive increase in spending might lead the tax-paying reader to wonder what they got for all of that money. The answer, quite simply is, “not much.” In 1997, according to a report called “Graduation by the Numbers,” New Mexico graduated 56.3 percent of its students. By 2007, that number had actually declined to 54.9 percent. Also, over that time period, New Mexico remained mired at the very bottom of the National Assessment of Educational Progress where it remains today.

Soules does make one important point that I can agree with and that is that teacher quality is extremely important. Unfortunately, teachers’ unions have opposed any efforts – including a merit pay proposal put forth by Gov. Martinez in the 2011 legislative session – that would have increased pay for New Mexico’s best teachers. Merit pay is one means of attracting and keeping the best teachers in the classroom. Along with merit pay, allowing New Mexico’s large numbers of talented technicians and scientists to become teachers through alternative, more streamlined means of certification, would help improve teacher quality.

Such proposals are being enacted or at least considered in other states. Alternative teacher certification has been adopted in Florida where it contributed to the success of the “Florida Model” that has formed the basis for Gov. Martinez’s education reforms. This year, Florida went even further when Gov. Rick Scott signed a merit pay bill into law. New Mexico needs to move fast or be left in the dust.

It seems hard for me to believe that Soules, a teacher, believes that parents and the public are apathetic about improving educational results. It strikes me as more likely that the monopolistic educational systems currently in place stifle choice, lead to a feeling of helplessness and lack of empowerment among parents and their children, and lead to a belief that the best we can do is the status quo.

In addition to merit pay and alternative teacher certification, educational improvements could be made through increased school choice and competition, more rigorous standards, and innovative technologies like those that allow for online schooling.

Teachers, parents, and even administrators usually have the best of intentions. We all want our kids to learn. But pitting these groups against each other gets us nowhere. Instead, we need to change the system. Monopolies have a long track record of failure and they have done so in spades in education. All stakeholders need to demand choice, accountability, and a focus on the educational needs of children to improve educational outcomes 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.