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Published in Print: March 31, 1999, as N.M. Governor Digs In His Heels on Vouchers

N.M. Governor Digs In His Heels on Vouchers

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New Mexico's Democratic-led legislature and Republican governor are headed for a showdown. And the battle--which centers on private school vouchers--may throw New Mexico's schools into limbo.

After lawmakers adjourned March 20 without passing a private-school-voucher plan, Gov. Gary E. Johnson vowed to veto the $3.3 billion state budget and call lawmakers back to the capital for a special legislative session. That session is expected to focus on the budget, tax cuts, and vouchers.

Legislators and the governor must strike a deal by July 1, when the current budget runs out, or risk a shutdown of the schools and the rest of state government.

'A Silver Bullet'

"The entire situation here is being held hostage by what the governor's calling a silver bullet, and that's vouchers," said Democrat Manny M. Aragon, the Senate's president pro tem.

But Dave Miller, the governor's legislative liaison, said Mr. Johnson feels strongly that vouchers are "the right thing" for true school reform.

"If shutting down the government's what it takes, he's said he's willing to do it," Mr. Miller said. "It's a real test of wills here."

The governor and his supporters say vouchers are the "quantum leap" needed to spur competition and improvement in a sluggish public school system that produces too many dropouts and too few top achievers.

Critics of Mr. Johnson's plan--including public and private school groups--say the plan is too broad and is an untested experiment that could damage the public school system. The only thing a voucher program is guaranteed to bring New Mexico, they argue, is a costly legal battle over its constitutionality.

Governor a 'Hero'

Under Gov. Johnson's expansive proposal, up to 100,000 poor children would be eligible for state vouchers worth roughly $3,000 each to attend private or religious schools in the first year of the four-year plan; gradually, all New Mexico students would be eligible.

Vouchers figured prominently in the governor's re-election campaign last fall. He has since used TV appearances and town meetings to promote the idea. Aides say the governor, who can call a special session at any time, plans to rally more support for vouchers in the coming weeks.

At a Glance: New Mexico

  • Population: 1.7 million
  • Governor: Gary E.
    Johnson (R)
  • State Superintendent: Michael J. Davis
  • Number of K-12 public school students: 333,000
  • Number of K-12 public schools: 731
  • Fiscal 1999 K-12 budget: $1.47 billion

A poll of 400 New Mexico parents that was released in February found that 58 percent favored vouchers.

Mr. Johnson has pointed to fellow Republican Arne Carlson who, while governor of Minnesota in 1997, vetoed the education budget and called a special session to consider his plan for tax credits that families could use to help pay for private schooling. A compromise bill included tax breaks. ("Minn. Expands Tax Breaks Tied to Education," July 9, 1997.)

Some political observers say Mr. Johnson's strategy is risky. But others point out that the state's term limits mean his current term will be his last.

Regardless, New Mexico's debate has attracted national attention. Mr. Johnson's voucher plan was lauded in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial. And such advocates of school choice as Clint Bolick, who has defended school vouchers in some major legal cases, are working closely with the governor.

"Johnson is swiftly emerging as a hero in the school choice movement," said Mr. Bolick, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Justice, a legal- advocacy organization. "If anyone can pull off a significant school choice program in a state with a heavily Democratic legislature, it would appear to be Gov. Johnson."

No Easy Way Out

New Mexico's voucher debate has created some unusual alliances. The New Mexico Federation of Catholic School Families and the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools have joined forces with the teachers' unions and other public education groups to fight the governor's plan.

The private school groups say a number of factors are working against the plan; among them: Many private schools don't have space, and many communities in the largely rural state don't have private schools.

They also point to an opinion drafted earlier this year by the state attorney general, which says the voucher plan could violate the state constitution by funneling public money to religious schools.

Lawmakers say they passed other school reforms Mr. Johnson wanted, such as expanding charter schools, increasing teacher accountability, and paying for increased student testing. The governor rejected as inadequate a Democratic voucher alternative that would have provided a $300-per-student tax credit to the parents of private school students.

Recently, the governor suggested he might be open to discussing a slightly smaller voucher program than his original plan. The governor's aides say he's waiting for lawmakers to come up with a compromise, but lawmakers say they're waiting for Mr. Johnson to make the next move. And observers say it's tough to predict what middle ground can be carved out in such a polarized debate.

"I don't know how we're going to get out of this," Sen. Aragon said.

Vol. 18, Issue 29, Pages 16-17

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