Seeking answer to school woes

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Much has been tried but success remains distant

By Jay Miller

Education may be the biggest item of discussion in the 2011 Legislature. That is as it should be. New Mexico’s constitution identifies public schools as the state’s most important service. And it’s almost half the budget.
But every year, state lawmakers get embroiled in discussing social issues. The media add to the distraction by pushing open government legislation that will help us tell you what is going on up here.
And education becomes an afterthought. Actually, Gov. Bill Richardson talked a great deal about public schools. Discussions of Richardson’s legacy seldom mention the subject but he may have spent more time dealing with education than any other topic.
Richardson took office in 2003 with soaring popularity ratings. His first move was a big tax cut that former Gov. Gary Johnson never had been able to get passed. Next came a railroad and a spaceport.
Everyone remembers those “bold initiatives.” But many have forgotten the boldest initiative of all. Richardson convinced the legislature to call a special election for the following September for voters to consider amending our constitution to dedicate a larger share of the state permanent fund to public schools.
Never had the legislature been willing to do such a thing. And never had voters been willing to approve. Richardson spent a good deal of political capital traveling the state speaking to public meetings about the necessity of moving New Mexico schools from one of the lowest expenditures per child to a higher ranking.
Richardson also requested another constitutional amendment to move public school oversight from an elected state board of education to a department under the governor.
New Mexicans are not fond of abolishing elected offices but they passed both constitutional amendments. Public schools now have more money and the governor has more power over them.
Schools soon were doing more testing, teacher qualifications and pay were raised, dropout programs were enacted and so were programs to get parents more involved and to identify the special needs of Hispanic students. And it didn’t do much, if any, good.
New Mexico, despite its efforts, hasn’t been putting its money into changes in the education system that make a difference in student achievement.
So, Gov. Susana Martinez plans to try some different changes. She has recruited Hanna Skandera, a nationally recognized authority on school improvement. Skandera has been a top state education official in Florida and California, plus the U.S. Department of Education and the Hoover Institute.
Some grumbling in the education community is being heard but it is hard to argue with success. In the past decade, reading scores in Florida have improved by 20 points while New Mexico scores remain unchanged.
Despite the popular Republican refrain that throwing money at a problem doesn’t help solve it, Republicans typically are not stingy when it comes to schools.
It is my belief that given equal amounts of money for a state budget, Republicans will spend more money on schools than Democrats will. The reason is that Democrats have a number of other social programs they also want to fund.
Skandera’s advocacy of school vouchers and merit pay will cause some grousing. Martinez found it necessary to reverse her support of vouchers during the general election campaign.
Oldtimers don’t especially care to follow Florida’s lead. In February 1968, Florida teachers went out on strike. A month later, New Mexico teachers did the same.
In the 1970s, Florida adopted a  distribution formula for funding schools that New Mexico followed. That formula is now being declared inequitable.
But at least people are talking about education and what causes New Mexico to trail the nation, when the nation badly trails many other countries throughout the world.
One factor that exists in the countries that lead us in student achievement is the amount of government involvement in encouraging high achievement expectations. That will be scary to many.

Jay Miller