Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

NM kids deserve more school options

What is the best way to educate a child? Well, it depends on the child.

Every parent and teacher knows this. That’s why there are so many different, yet proven, approaches to education. Big schools and small schools both work. So do secular and religious schools. Single sex and co ed. College prep and vocational. Advanced classes for kids way above their grade level, and special resources for kids who need extra help.

None of these approaches is right or wrong in any exclusive sense. Most students do best somewhere in the middle of the options above. That’s why it was so unfortunate that the New Mexico Legislature adjourned last month without taking up two bills that would help New Mexicans build out a more “all-of-the-above” approach to K-12 education in the state.

The first was Senate Bill 210, sponsored by Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, and Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences. It would have allowed students’ families to receive directly the amount of public education money to which they are entitled through a state-funded education savings account (ESA). So, instead of getting a desk, locker and books at their local school, a student could take his or her share of their local education budget in cash, and their parents could spend it on any kind of schooling they choose.

The second bill, Senate Joint Resolution 14, was a proposed amendment to the state Constitution toward the same end – allowing New Mexicans a vote on whether to open up the state education system to all kinds of alternative opportunity programs, whether ESAs or other innovative approaches .

Debates about school choice often break down into food fights about the quality of public schools, as if the only reason parents might want options is that they think public schools are bad. But, in the real world, that’s not how choice works. Market competition is born of respect, not animosity. People don’t shop at Lowe’s because they resent Home Depot, or vice versa. Android and Apple smartphones appeal to different people for perfectly innocent reasons. Owners of Italian restaurants don’t take it as an affront that there are also Mexican restaurants.

Pluralism is a natural and healthy byproduct of diversity. And it’s everywhere in New Mexico. It is reflected in our economy, culture, spiritual communities, politics and art. And, of course, there is pluralism in our education system, too. It’s just reserved right now for people with enough money to afford private school – about 5% of NM students – or the personal flexibility to home school their kids – only a few thousand in the whole state. SB 210 and SJR 14 would simply have extended those options to everyone else. And the great thing is that polling shows that around two-thirds of New Mexicans support these options.

Especially after two years of COVID-19 showing us we could be flexible with K-12 education when necessary – distance learning, hybrid approaches, neighborhood pods, etc. – now seems a good time to embrace, rather than resist, innovation.

After all, every other sector of our economy is navigating a “new normal” after the pandemic: Many jobs are becoming more flexible, schedules more personalized and offices decentralized. Of course, physical public schools will remain the best option for most students and families. But why pigeonhole anyone when we have the resources to enable all families – not just the privileged few – to tailor each child’s education to what works best for him or her? …

The Legislature ducked that question by refusing to even consider SB 210 and SJR 14. But New Mexico’s children, parents and taxpayers still deserve an answer. …

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