In 2018, a state district judge issued an historic decision identifying the long-time shortcomings and faults of New Mexico’s public education system. Judge Sarah Singleton described in great detail how our Native American, English learner, disabled and economically disadvantaged students were not receiving the education promised by our state constitution. In turn, she demanded state policymakers fix the problem.
Since then, we have seen the governor declare an educational “moonshot,” a billion-dollar increase in K-12 education spending, and implementation of progressive theology of equity, inclusion and diversity to help these at-risk students.
Our governor then shut down our public schools for more than a year and mandated remote learning for which these same at-risk students would likely have less access to computers and internet service than other students.
What results has this education “Hail Mary” created? Students across all grades and backgrounds are falling further behind their peers in other states; schools are seeing more students with behavioral health problems and higher rates of absenteeism; and N.M.’s schools are still ranked 50th in the nation. There is also growing recognition among parents that the Department of Public Education (PED) is more concerned with promoting political agendas than ensuring kids can read, write and do math – a travesty by any measure.
PED recently released a draft 55-page action plan designed to fulfill the judge’s ruling that state policymakers must provide at-risk students with the education they deserve. Sadly, the draft proposal was nothing more than the same education “solutions” of the past – spending more money, creating new programs directed by the Santa Fe bureaucracy, and restating educational goals that have never been met. In short, it was a typical top-down approach, along with a refusal to critically examine how N.M.’s public schools operate and are financed. To say students, parents and taxpayers are becoming more frustrated is a gross understatement.
Why not try something new? The ways of the past have failed and now is the time to institute fundamental change – school choice. This approach would allow families to take their children’s education dollars to an approved education provider of their choosing, whether a traditional public school, a public charter school, a private school, virtual learning or home schooling. School choice ensures education dollars are used to educate children, not to protect a particular educational institution or politically influential group. We could start school choice by modifying our patchwork extended learning program, which has left half of the state’s students with unequal opportunity simply because many districts don’t want to extend the school year. Let’s give those students options!
Educational savings accounts, scholarship tax credits, individual tuition tax credits and, yes, even the “dreaded” voucher, are proven ways of increasing access to better educational experiences. Contrary to the myths created by naysayers, school choice has shown to improve academic performance, reduce racial disparities and save taxpayers’ money.
The educational deficiency N.M.’s at-risk students experience is due primarily to being forced to attend schools that will not or cannot meet their needs. By providing the financial resources to offer school choice, these students and their families can discover new learning opportunities that offer hope for the future. Equally important, school choice will instill a creative environment among educators to develop learning centers better prepared to educate our state’s diverse student population.
We need to transform public education to help at-risk communities and the best way is to give students, parents and educators choice when it comes to deciding the best learning opportunity.