Better Education Does Make All the Difference: Governor Gary E. Johnson

Published October 1, 2000

Things aren’t going to change tomorrow in a community where there’s only one school. But give it time. Give it a year. Give it two years and I think what you’re going to see is an explosion of innovation, even in rural areas. Leading the way is going to be the delivery of education over the Internet. Having vouchers as the tool to implement this is very exciting.

New Mexico’s Governor Gary E. Johnson is not your typical politician.

When Johnson says it’s his goal to climb Mount Everest after he leaves office, that’s not just idle bravado: When he decides to do something, it gets done.

Johnson is a nationally ranked triathlete and the first governor to compete in Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon. He’s also the first governor in the history of New Mexico to serve two consecutive four-year terms. His successful run for governor in 1994 was his first foray into politics.

Born in Minot, North Dakota, Johnson received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of New Mexico in 1975. He has always believed life’s highest calling is doing good by others and that politics is a way of accomplishing that. But he needed to establish himself before entering politics.

Even before he graduated from college, Johnson worked as a handyman and sought out construction and remodeling jobs. In 1976, he founded his own construction company. Eighteen years later, he and his wife were running a company with 1,000 employees.

Confident he could now run for office without being indebted to anyone, Johnson introduced himself to the Republican Party just two weeks before he announced his candidacy for governor. While GOP officials liked his views, they didn’t think he could get elected. They were wrong.

In his first term, Johnson did what most politicians only promise to do: He upgraded the state’s highway system and reformed its Medicaid system while cutting taxes, reducing the number of state employees by 6 percent, and limiting the growth of state government to 4 percent a year.

Governor Johnson’s top priority is to improve education in New Mexico. Nearly half a billion more dollars are being invested in education each year than was the case when he took office. Johnson launched education reform in the state with his “For the Children’s Sake” plan. He is a strong advocate of school vouchers and has dismayed voucher opponents with his decision to make school choice and school vouchers an issue in this year’s primary and general elections. Johnson spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: Why are better schools important for New Mexico, and how did you become interested in pursuing a school reform solution that provides parents with a wider choice of schools for their children?

Johnson: The first question is a question everybody in this country is going to answer the same, and that is that better education does make all the difference when it comes to jobs, when it comes to health, and when it comes to your own well-being. You’re not going to get ahead unless you’re as well-educated as you possibly can be.

With regard to school reform, I believe that New Mexico, along with most states in the country, is year after year after year showing just a little bit less when it comes to the results from its schools. I know of no other area in our lives where this phenomenon occurs except in public education. On the other hand, higher education in this country is unquestionably the best in the world, and we should make public education a little bit more like higher education.

I think you accomplish that through the issuance of vouchers to every single student in the state, bringing competition to public education and allowing children to choose schools much as they choose in higher education today.

Clowes: I understand you’ll now be able to track how a school is doing over time because New Mexico schools now are being rated on performance.

Johnson: What I’m grateful for is that we’ve finally gotten to the point where we’re actually grading our schools and where we’re going to have these results for the first time. That’s something I’ve pushed for since I’ve been in office, which is now five and a half years. When these grades come out for our schools, I want everybody in New Mexico not to denounce the schools but to say, “All right, here’s where we’re at. What do we need to do to get better next year?”

With these ratings, we’ll actually be able for the first time to compare one school to another when it comes to test scores in the various categories. We’ll also be able to look at one school from one year to the next, and have the results put out in a format that is easy to read and easy to understand. Since the first ratings are coming out today, my comments are going to be along the line that “Hey, this is the first time we’ve done this. It shouldn’t be a surprise, and the idea here is to get better from this point on.”

Clowes: Could you give me a brief outline of your proposal for school vouchers in New Mexico?

Johnson: Basically, the idea is to give every single student in New Mexico a school voucher, so you’re looking at approximately 330,000 children in New Mexico who would receive a voucher. The program would be phased-in over four years by income level, so we’ll start out with families at the poverty level and then increase the income limits to where everybody would get a voucher. Students who already are in private schools would get a voucher just the same as students in public schools. They would be phased-in by income, so that the children in private schools who are at the poverty level would be phased-in in Year One.

The value of the voucher would be tied to the student equalization funding formula, which means that the value of the voucher is going to be somewhere in the vicinity of $4,000. Now, the amount of money that we actually spend on a student for a public education in New Mexico is about $6,000, and that also is tied to the funding formula, which is different from one school district to another.

One of the huge criticisms of vouchers is that they’re going to take money away from public education. Under my proposal–and I’ll use this as the extreme example–if every child in Santa Fe were to take their school voucher and opt out of Santa Fe public schools, the Santa Fe public schools would be left with about 35 percent of their budget and no students. It’s just not going to happen, but it illustrates the point that as money for vouchers flows from the public schools, we actually raise the amount of money available for each student remaining in the public schools. That’s because the public schools get $6,000 a student and we’re granting a $4,000 voucher to those who choose outside the public school system.

Clowes: How would private schools be qualified to accept vouchers?

Johnson: There’s presently a qualification to become a private school, so no additional qualification would be needed. The one caveat that would be added for private schools would be that, if a private school accepts a state-funded voucher, that private school would have to assess voucher students with the same standardized test that is administered in the public schools.

Clowes: How do you think your background in business influenced your views on how to implement education reform?

Johnson: Well, I think it is a big factor in it, in that business is “Best product, best service, lowest price.” If you can combine all three of those elements, then you’re successful. Period. I couple that also with the fact that my father was a teacher in the Albuquerque public schools, that I’m a product of public schools, and that my children have been products of public schools. You couple all of those things together, and I really do see this as the key to reforming public education in this country.

We’re spending a lot of money on education, but I don’t think it’s an issue of money because we continue to spend more and more money on a product that, by all measurements, is doing just a little bit worse from year to year to year. Is there any other aspect of our lives where we’re allowing this to happen? I don’t think so. I see vouchers as a way of bringing those three business elements into education: Best product, best service, lowest price.

Clowes: You support a universal school voucher that gives every child a chance to attend their school of choice. Why a universal voucher, rather than one that’s means-tested?

Johnson: Well, if you were to use that as a way to phase-in vouchers, I would not have an objection to a means-tested approach. But any way that I look at it, I believe that you have to make the program inclusive. You’ve got to give every student a voucher for the program to work.

One of the problems with vouchers is that we’ve got about 70 pilot programs going on throughout the country and, because they’re not completely market-driven, they have shortcomings. They’re really not as competitive as they should be, and if you were to really open it up you would see plenty of competition and plenty of innovation. I believe that would really drive the change that we’re all looking for, which is simply better education for children.

Clowes: What led you to make school choice the overriding issue in this year’s elections, and what effect has the campaign had?

Johnson: I believe that it has become the issue that candidates address in their campaigns.

Here’s an observation: In a room of 1,000 people, ask “How many people here know of people over the last year who have gone from opposing vouchers to now believing that there might be something to vouchers or, in fact, support vouchers?” You’ll have a bunch of hands go up, perhaps as much as half the room.

Then ask the question, “Is there anybody here that knows of somebody who has been supportive of vouchers and that, over the course of the last year, is now not supporting the concept of vouchers?” No one will raise their hand. I mean, nobody raises their hand.

The momentum is clearly in the direction of people saying, “You know what? We’ve got to give vouchers a chance. There is something to this. This makes sense.” It has become a campaign issue because people recognize it’s a no-lose proposition: The voucher is redeemable at public schools, so what is there to lose? Other than some really bad schools that won’t be in existence any longer.

And I know you know this criticism: “Where vouchers have been used, you’ve had private schools that have failed.” Precisely. The point being: Those schools weren’t any good, and they’ve failed–which is something we don’t get in the public sector, ever. We never see public schools fail because there’s no mechanism for them to fail.

Vouchers were an issue in primary campaigns and without exception I think vouchers survived the process. One of the real key races in this state involved an incumbent who sat on the state school board, a Republican who I swear made a pastime out of writing anti-voucher editorials. He got defeated in the primary, which I think is very significant. I also thought it was significant that we heard about school choice in both Presidential conventions. Of course, we heard from the Republicans that school choice should be part of the equation, but then we heard the same rhetoric–minus vouchers–that there might be room for school choice even on the Democratic side.

Clowes: One of the important expected developments from a voucher program is the creation of new schools. Will the wide dispersion of population in New Mexico work against the creation of new schools?

Johnson: There will be change, even in the most rural areas. But you’ve got to give it a little bit of time.

In rural New Mexico, things will probably not change tomorrow as a result of the issuance of vouchers. Things aren’t going to change tomorrow in a community where there’s only one school. But give it time. Give it a year. Give it two years and I think what you’re going to see is an explosion of innovation, even in rural areas. Leading the way is going to be the delivery of education over the Internet. Having vouchers as the tool to implement this is very exciting.

The feedback that I’ve gotten from Native Americans on providing alternatives to what they have currently has been overwhelmingly positive, because they do see their schools as failed. There has been a huge amount of support for just creating some alternatives.

Clowes: Some people don’t want tax dollars going to religious schools. What do you say to address these concerns?

Johnson: What you’re raising here is the constitutionality of school vouchers. Number one: The school voucher question has survived many legal challenges. It’s survived on the basis that vouchers are not going to religious schools. They’re going to parents, with parents allowed to make the choice as to where their children would go to school.

Number two: I’ve got news for anybody who criticizes vouchers as being unconstitutional or says that government can’t be spending money on religious institutions. In essence, we have a voucher system for child care in the state. For those mothers who are on welfare, we give them what in essence is a voucher which allows them to choose where to send their children to child care, and in many cases that child care is religious. That’s a state-funded program. We don’t call it a voucher but it might just as well be called a voucher.

The recent decision on school vouchers in Florida–which Jeb Bush predicted to me would happen–was a decision that public money cannot be used for children outside of public schools. Well, that puts them in a real dilemma in Florida because they have 25,000 special-needs children who are contracted out to private service providers because the public schools can’t deal with their needs. That’s something that happens in New Mexico, too, and every other state. So with school vouchers, we’re just going to expand on something we’re already doing, only we’re expanding on it to a much greater degree.