Johnson’s Voucher Vision

Published November 1, 1999

New Mexico doesn’t have a voucher program yet, but the state already has three important lessons for school choice advocates–thanks to the leadership of Republican Governor Gary Johnson.

Johnson, now serving his second term, will not seek re-election in 2001. He offers these lessons for voucher supporters:

  • You can use the word “voucher.”
  • You can change public opinion on vouchers.
  • You must realize that opponents will fight you just as hard on a small choice plan as a large one.

No one can accuse Johnson of making small plans. While most conservative politicians avoid using “the v-word” and have resorted to selling school choice as an escape route for poor students in failing Title I schools, the governor’s vision for vouchers is bold and broad. Drawing the battle lines on his terms, Johnson advocates the type of school choice first envisioned by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman. His plan offers a voucher worth $3,300 to all 330,000 students in New Mexico to attend a public or private school of choice. Average per-pupil spending in the state currently is $5,500.

Speaking on October 4 before an audience at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC and also to a national Internet audience, Johnson explained why he doesn’t allow public opinion polls to dictate his policies. Despite increasing the public education budget from $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion, he noticed that the academic performance of his state’s students had deteriorated. He looked to school choice as the solution, even though polls showed public opinion 40-60 against statewide vouchers.

Rather than draw up accountability systems, which he calls “feel good” reform, Johnson launched an all-out campaign against the odds to pass school choice in New Mexico. He vetoed his state budget twice because the legislature would not include his school choice plan. He traveled the state and took his message to the people. Within six months, public opinion had moved to 60-40 in favor of statewide vouchers.

Johnson has vowed to fight for choice again and intends to make school vouchers the biggest issue in the year 2000 election of the entire New Mexico Legislature. At a time when researchers on the left and right are scrambling to evaluate the effects of small pilot programs on public schools and the common good, approval of the governor’s free market challenge to the public school monopoly would vault New Mexico to national recognition as a laboratory of democracy for the new millennium.

“There are no incentives to improve” in the present system, said Johnson.

Nina Shokraii Rees is a senior education policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation who has frequently testified before Congress on elementary and secondary education issues.