Maybe rainy day funds be used for education

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — The more things change, the more they stay the same. I was about to write that same introduction for my previous column about simplifying the state’s tax structure because it was a repeat of something I had tried to do 20 years earlier.
This time the subject is a piece of the land grant permanent fund a group wants to use to improve New Mexico’s education system.
Many of you remember that little ditty that took place soon after Gov. Bill Richardson took office.
It was 10 years ago and Gov. Richardson had a huge amount of political capital. He had a big, bold legislative initiative and nearly all of it passed – much even on a bipartisan basis.
Two of those items were constitutional amendments, which required a public vote at the next November’s election
One of the bills was to take money out of the permanent to assist in improving public education. The other was to bring the state Department under the governor. It seemed logical since education is about half the state’s budget. And thus, the governor should have control of it.
Gov. Richardson barnstormed the state campaigning for the two items. The transfer of the state Board of Education passed easily. Voters weren’t accustomed to spending their permanent fund monies. But with Richardson’s help. It passed too.
The victory was a big deal. New Mexicans knew public education needed vast improvements. One of Richardson’s big targets was parents. He knew that if parents took a big interest in their children’s education, tremendous improvement could be made.
But he never seemed to reach them. I know from experience that even parents who are well off financially sometimes don’t care.
I had one father tell me it was his job to be successful in business. It was my job to see he got a good education. One visit to parents’ night at school shows how few parents are truly interested.
Another Richardson initiative was dropout and graduation rates. Another was test scores. Neither did well.
Gov. Richardson’s education effort had many organizations supporting his effort. A number of educational, business, religious, labor and social advocacy groups were in there fighting for the governor’s proposal.
Can it pass again 10 years later? In 2003, we had a booming economy. It was enough to finance a commuter train, a spaceport, highway construction and tax cuts for everyone. We were rolling in dough. Now we’re witnessing long lines of the jobless, willing to work for just about anything.
But we still know that better schools are a big answer to many of our problems. So many of the types of organizations mentioned above are banding together again to push for another increase in the permanent fund to pursue a different educational model.
Recent research has shown the extreme importance of getting them while they’re young.
This means concentrating on the children under five. That’s before what we used to consider as school age. This means activities such as home visits, parent coaching, a fully funded 4-year-old pre-kindergarten, early childhood training centers and quality early childhood teacher training.
It can be done but it will be expensive. Backers of the proposal note that by using a tiny portion of our $11 billion permanent fund, all this can be done without any money out of taxpayers’ pockets.
If Senate Joint Resolution 3 does pass the Legislature, it will go directly to the November 2014 ballot.
Gov. Susana Martinez has stated her support for education, in general. She reads to many classes. But if this constitutional amendment is to pass, it will take her support and that of business groups that will be helped by the hiring features in this proposal.
Using some of the money in the state permanent fund is risky. It is a rainy-day fund. The question is whether it currently is raining.

Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.