New Mexico voters have given Gov. Bill Richardson more power over public education than any of his predecessors enjoyed, and the money he says he needs to pay for his school reforms.
It’s a potent combination for the former Clinton Cabinet member who was elected governor only 11 months ago. And while education advocates in the Land of Enchantment are praising his quick successes, his critics say the accolades are undeserved.
Either way, it’s hard to say that the former U.S. secretary of energy isn’t getting exactly what he wants.
That’s what happened with the passage of a Sept. 23 ballot measure that raises aid for schools and passed by 195 votes: The count became final just last week.
The measure will add $600 million over 12 years to school financing from the state’s permanent education fund, which is made up of royalties from leases on public lands.
Voters were asked to decide whether to incrementally raise the share of the interest from the fund that goes to K-12 education from 4.7 percent to 5.8 percent over the 12-year period.
On the same September ballot, New Mexico voters approved a proposal that allows the governor to appoint a state secretary of education. The measure eliminates the post of a state schools superintendent, who had been appointed by the 15-member state board of education.
Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, has formed a 31-member search committee that is charged with finding the best-qualified candidates for the new position. Alan Morgan, a former New Mexico state superintendent of schools, has taken the role of interim education secretary.
In addition, the makeup and power of the state board will shift. The five positions on the 15-member board once filled by the governor’s appointees will be eliminated. The 10 elected seats will remain, though the board will serve only in an advisory role.
The changes, say observers, give Gov. Richardson unprecedented power over public education in the state.
So far, his political achievements have education leaders singing the governor’s praises.
“From Day One, he has made education a focal point,” said Eduardo Holguin, the president for the National Education Association’s New Mexico affiliate. “He has in a very short time enhanced and funded the education system. He talks the talk and walks the walk.”
But not everyone approves of Mr. Richardson’s moves, especially on funding for his plan.
Some opponents are critical of his turning to voters to ask permission to use money from the permanent fund, especially after cutting taxes in the 2003 legislative session this past spring.
The tax cut package reduced the top rate of personal income tax from 8.2 percent to 4.9 percent, and also reduced capital-gains taxes by half.
“It is disingenuous,” said Shawn Sullivan, the deputy executive director of the New Mexico Republican Party. “It’s a cynical maneuver. He portrays himself as a tax-cutter. Then he holds a special election on an off-year election year with low voter turnout to get the money. It’s a cheap way to do it.”
Mr. Sullivan warned that it is dangerous to rely on the performance of the permanent fund, which depends on the health of the economy.
“They have set arbitrary increases over the years, which may not be possible if the economy is bad,” he said.
But supporters of the governor’s plan counter by saying that the plan is sound, that New Mexicans deserve a tax cut, and that the fund exists with the specific purpose of helping public education.
Mr. Holguin said that in years past, the fund, which now stands at about $7 billion, has prospered and reached up to $9 billion or $10 billion while the state education budget has been tight.
“We were the poor little rich state who couldn’t afford public school reforms,” Mr. Holguin said, “yet we had this huge endowment.”
Gov. Richardson now has the funding for the wide-ranging education improvement package that passed the legislature with bipartisan support in April. He helped craft the plan with business leaders and education groups. (“N.M. Governor Signs Package of School Reform Bills,” April 16, 2003.)
“We’ve had pro-education governors in the past,” said Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Mr. Richardson. “But none have had the ability to put the reform plan in place and the funding that will make it work together.”
A central part of the reform plan is a new schedule to raise teacher salaries based on their experience. The law established a new, three-tiered system for teacher salaries; it set a minimum salary of $30,000 a year, starting this December. The minimum salary for teachers in New Mexico is currently $22,000.
Among other measures, the reform package creates an American Indian education division within the state department of education. The legislation also requires school districts to spend an additional 1 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction, and to decrease the amount of money they hold in reserve accounts.
“Unlike the federal government’s education reform, we have a way to pay for it,” said Mr. Gallegos. “It’s a prudent way to pay for it. It didn’t require a tax increase.”