To address the issue, Republican Senator Craig Brandt (R-Rio Rancho) is proposing a plan: Educational freedom accounts. The idea boils down to using state funds to allow New Mexico kids to go to private school or get private tutoring.
“It provides a educational freedom account for any family applies for it. For any student,” Brandt explained in a Senate Education Committee hearing Wednesday. “That money goes directly to whatever school those parents decide to send their children to. It doesn’t go to the parents. It goes directly to the school. That student then is allowed to attend that school.”
The idea isn’t completely out of the blue. In fact, some other states do implement similar programs. For example, New Hampshire allows students with family incomes up to 300% of the federal poverty level to receive over $3,000 in aid to spend on their education.
During Wednesday’s committee hearing, some members of the public spoke in favor of such a program. “New Mexico desperately needs new options for students our education system, and the current players have not gotten the job done for New Mexico students,” said Paul Gessing, who leads the Rio Grande Foundation economic policy think tank.
“Our children need all the options that we can get for them,” said Alan Sánchez, the executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishop. “New Mexico is on a great path now. Things are turning for change. And this may be some of the change that we need, even though that the status quo isn’t so comfortable with it.”
But those who spoke in opposition of the bill said the money and effort would be better spent on improving public schools.
“This program will ultimately take public funding from public schools – which will always serve the majority of New Mexico students – and provide state funding for private schools,” said Emily Wildau, speaking for the advocacy group, New Mexico Voices for Children. “We believe that continuing to focus on improvements in our public schools and continued support for our charter schools is a significantly better use of public state funding.”
Those speaking for teachers also opposed the idea. “Rather than encouraging parents to get involved to improve their schools, this bill is telling them to jump ship,” Dwayne Norris, vice president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said.
Sen. Brandt clarified that he’s not trying to attack public schools. “I put my children in public school. So, I’m not against public schools,” he said. “What I’m saying is that we need to make sure that parents who are the best and making these decisions . . . that they have the resources to be able to make those decisions.”
Fellow legislators were sympathetic to Brandt’s desire to boost education. But he ultimately faced opposition.
Sen. Gay G. Kernan (R-Chaves, Eddy & Lea) opposed the idea on the thinking that it might violate the state’s constitution. “I am first and foremost committed to support the Constitution of New Mexico. If you had brought this in the form of a resolution, I would have no problem supporting it. But in good faith, I’m not going to support a bill that does not follow along with the Constitution of New Mexico,” Kernan said.
Indeed, the Office of New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez noted that by providing public funds to support private schools, the bill seems to conflict with Article XII, Section 3 of the state’s constitution. The Attorney General also noted that the bill could be challenged on the basis that it might violate the Anti-Donation Clause of the state’s constitution and the Establishment Clause, according to comments provided in an analysis.
Ultimately, the debate broke down to the issue of school choice. Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. William P. Soules (D-Doña Ana), asked Brandt if New Mexicans currently have school choice. Brandt’s response: “No.” The two senators went back and forth over the issue, arguing over the idea of “school choice,” then Soules made his position clear.
“This is clearly a way of diverting public funds to private schools and institutions,” Soules said. “I believe that to be wrong, not only within New Mexico, but within our country.”
Soules also defended New Mexico’s public schools. “I think it’s an unfair characterization that we [our public schools] have gotten worse, because our ranking has dropped [and] we have not kept up with the other [states],” he said. “I think we made the investments to stay on track.”
Following debate, the Democrats of the Senate Education Committee voted to table the bill. After that, Brandt issued a statement: “The Senate Education Committee largely agreed that our education system in New Mexico is broken. What I found shameful was when faced with an opportunity to make significant and forward-thinking changes, the chairman was more interested in protecting the unions than helping disadvantaged children.”