Christmas came quite early for New Mexico’s educrats in 2019. But unsatisfied with the massive increase in government-school spending approved during the last legislative session, the “education” lobby will be back for more in just a few weeks.
In a recent presentation at the capitol, the Public Education Department (PED) put the price of lawmakers’ enhanced largesse at $635 million. Let’s be clear — that not total “public investment” in the state’s government schools. That’s the one-year increase for this fiscal year.
Fiscal 2021 gets underway in six months, and the Land of Enchantment’s most powerful political predator is licking its chops at the prospect of grabbing another huge share of the abundant oil-and-gas revenue pouring into Santa Fe. The PED wants $3.5 billion — including money for “4% salary increases for all school personnel.” (That would be on top of the 6 percent hike in base salaries for “professional educators” enacted in the current budget.) The newly-minted “Early Childhood Education and Care Department” is requesting $447 million. Its secretary-designate Elizabeth Groginsky (“Style: Approachable, passionate, direct, flexible, high-expectations, empathetic and fun!”) is hiring “key staff,” establishing the “Early Child Advocacy Council,” and transitioning “contracts and federal funding” to her fiefdom. Rest assured, given the uncritical support labor, business, and religious entities deliver to any appropriation said to benefit “the children,” Democrats and Republicans will be generous.
Preschool — once targeted at the underclass, now well on its way to becoming “universal” — is a sad example of the fads New Mexico regularly embraces, in a clueless effort to boost the proficiencies and skill sets of its workforce. Class-size reduction is another, as is higher teacher pay. Such trendiness comes at considerable cost to the taxpayer. Federal data show that between the 1969-70 and 2014-15 school years, real, per pupil spending by New Mexico’s government schools rose from $4,525 to $11,219.
Was the additional money well spent? The state’s “performance” on various metrics — e.g., the graduation rate, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress— remains abysmal. And New Mexico spends more on schooling than each of its neighbors. Utah’s per-pupil expenditures are a jaw-dropping 30 percent lower. At the same time, the Beehive State ranks #1 on the Family Prosperity Index, while the Land of Enchantment is in the rock-bottom position. Substance abuse, welfare dependency, and violent crime are rampant here. Illiterate, unstable, chaotic, barbarous households don’t foster learning. And no amount of government spending will ever change that depressing truth.
An end to New Mexicans’ hideously destructive lifestyles won’t happen overnight. But there are two education reforms that elected officials can pursue in the short term that hold promise.
Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby has “consistently found evidence that both students and taxpayers are better off under locally based systems of school funding and school control.” Yet in New Mexico, checks from Santa Fe provide the vast bulk of the revenue for government education. (Only Arkansas, Hawaii, and Vermont fund greater shares via their state coffers.) Since the hydrocarbon industry (severance taxes) and affluent earners (income tax) front so much of the cost for Isabella and Noah’s three Rs, few community activists, leaders, and organizations watchdog school districts. After all, it’s someone else’s money being squandered. A shift to local funding — ideally, through higher property taxes — would go a long way toward fostering scrutiny of how neighborhood schools spend every dollar they receive.
School choice is another approach that promotes fiscal responsibility and student achievement. No, it’s not a cure-all. But research has shown that choice programs “create small, positive test score gains” and “appear to increase graduation rates.” For families unfortunate enough to live in poorly performing districts, education freedom offers a way out, and thus a way up.
New Mexico’s school-choice resources are slim. The state has no voucher/scholarship programs, and its charter-school law is unimpressive. Ironically, the national pace-setter in choice lies right to the west. Arizona offers “many educational opportunities.” Charter schools “operated independently of local school districts by either non-profit or for-profit entities,” charitable organizations that help fund attendance at private schools, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts that can be used for tuition, online learning, tutoring services, testing fees, and related expenses — the Grand Canyon State is staking its education future on competition and accountability.
Meanwhile, New Mexico is hobbled by a school bureaucracy that fails students and taxpayers alike. Policymakers are content to stick with what they have always done. Shoveling more money at a unionized monopoly is certain to produce results, eventually. Right?