SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Legislators on both sides of the political aisle seem to want better education for New Mexico. The issue is whether or not they can agree on how to achieve that goal.
After the Senate Education Committee tabled a Republican school choice bill, senators from both sides of the aisle seem to be finding some common ground. Friday, a vote allowed a bill to help disadvantaged kids access private schools to move forward.
“I’ve been approached by a number of people saying, you know, we need to do some way to help low-income kids take advantage of opportunities that might be available in some private schools that the family simply can’t begin to touch,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino (D-Abq.). He sponsored Senate Bill 113, which was debated in committee Friday.
The bill allows the state to offer a tax credit to people who donate to an educational fund. Proceeds from that fund would provide scholarships to help kids attend schools.
“We think we’ve walked the fine line that permits families to choose programs, educational programs for their children, that they feel are ideal,” Ortiz y Pino told the Senate Education committee. It “doesn’t cost the local district much or if any, and it does not cost the state anything at all.”
The idea is that only does the bill boost the potentially noble cause of philanthropy, but by framing the idea as a tax credit, the bill might be able to get around the Anti-donation Clause of the state’s Constitution.
Generally, the state can’t simply hand over checks to private schools. But, using a tax credit acts as a sort of loophole, according to supporters.
“You simply pass a tax credit and you allow me to keep more of my own money. So, the money never crosses the line and becomes public money,” says J.D. Bullington, a government relations expert who spoke in support of the bill. It’s “simply creating an incentive for someone to make a donation to a nonprofit organization with the private money and that is constitutional.”
But the debate over the constitutionality of the credits isn’t quite clear. Notes from the state’s Office of the Attorney General indicate that the issue may come down to the wording of the bill and its interpretation.
A line of public commenters from Rehoboth Christian School in Gallup spoke in favor of the bill on Friday. “This bill promotes access to better educational opportunities in our area for lower-income students, which our school primarily serves,” one of the speakers said.
Another commenter supported the bill after noting that New Mexico’s test scores dropped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also highlighted turnover at the top of the state’s Public Education Department.
There was opposition as well. Lilliemae Ortiz, a lobbyist for the New Mexico School Boards Association, says the organization has opposed these kinds of bills for years. “Regardless of the title it is given, whether it is called a tax credit [or] tuition freedom account, it still becomes a method of diverting and moving money, for education, from public schools,” Ortiz said. In addition, Ortiz pointed to comments from the state’s Public Education Department that “it’s not in the state’s best interest to fund a private school system that competes with state-supported public school systems.”
Earlier this week, legislators tabled a Republican-sponsored bill to create “educational freedom accounts” as a way to help more kids access private schools. At the time, committee chair Sen. William P. Soules (D-Doña Ana), opposed the Republican bill and defended the public school system.”
Again on Friday, Soules pushed back, arguing that Ortiz y Pino’s bill would lead to less tax revenue for the state. Ortiz y Pino’s reply: The state’s education budget is in the billions, but this credit would max out at about $2 million. So, the impact on the education budget, Ortiz y Pino says, is an “infinitesimal,” very small percentage.
Ortiz y Pino also pointed out that the state gives tax credits for all sorts of other programs, so why not education? And it’s a relatively small trial program. There would be no more than 400 scholarships given out each year.
Soules again seemed to defend public schools as a point of debate. He noted that the bill “leaves the most difficult-to-educate students in the public schools.”
But Ortiz y Pino countered. “It may seem unfair to a public school teacher, principal, or school board member, that they have to take all the kids, but that’s the way our system works,” Ortiz y Pino said. “This is just to give a few kids whose families want them to have access to certain programs that opportunity. That’s all it is. We’re not trying to undermine the responsibility of the public schools or the funding of the public schools.”
After debate, the Senate Education Committee ultimately let the bill move forward on a narrow vote. Democrats Soules and Harold Pope (Abq.) voted against the bill.
Republican Craig Brandt, whose school choice bill was shot down by the committee, voted in favor of Ortiz y Pino’s bill. In a press release, Brandt expressed disappointment in those who voted against the bill and added: “I am thankful to the bill sponsor and my colleagues who recognize that righting our education system for the most disadvantaged starts by thinking outside the box.”