Leading Democrat Offers Choice Bill in New Mexico

Published March 1, 2004

In a move that could signal a major change in the politics of school choice, New Mexico Senate Majority Leader Manny M. Aragon (D-Albuquerque) in January introduced a school choice bill that would allow more than 30,000 K-8 students from low-income families to exit New Mexico’s public schools over the next four years and transfer to a private school or another public school using a student scholarship worth an average of about $6,500.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declared vouchers constitutional in the 2002 Zelman decision, school choice advocates anticipated new programs would be approved in states where Republicans held the governor’s office and were in majority positions in the House and Senate. Although both Colorado and Texas met those conditions, only Colorado has approved a new voucher program. In New Mexico, Democrats control all the legislative levers.

Aragon’s bill, the Parental School Choice Scholarships Act, SB300, is a four-year pilot program that focuses its efforts on New Mexico public school districts with a high incidence of high school dropouts, low-income students, low test scores, wide achievement gaps among ethnic groups, and schools classed as in need of improvement under the state’s accountability system. Eleven such districts enrolling a total of 162,686 students are named in the bill, including Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Gallup-McKinley, Gadsden, and Santa Fe.

The plan would allow up to 20 percent of the K-8 students enrolled in those districts to exit their assigned public school and transfer to a public charter, magnet, or alternative school or to a private sectarian or nonsectarian school, with their parents being solely responsible for the selection of the school. Parents would receive a student scholarship note worth up to 80 percent of the per-pupil expenditure in the student’s school district, and that note would be endorsed over to the school to cover tuition and fees. Eligibility in the program would be limited to families whose income did not exceed 185 percent of the poverty level.

“A pilot program would prove whether or not school choice works,” said Aragon.

With the 2003-04 per-pupil expenditure in the 11 districts averaging $8,094, the value of the average student scholarship would be $6,475. The remaining $1,619 of per-pupil expenditure would remain with the district to create a pool of funds for eligible students at private schools to apply for scholarships. A total of 32,537 public school students would be eligible for scholarships, which would leave behind a total of $52.7 million to fund an additional 8,100 eligible students currently attending private schools.

A student scholarship funded at 80 percent of the district’s per-pupil cost produces a win-win situation for parents and for the school district, said Tim Walsh, who worked with Aragon in helping craft the bill. Walsh teaches K-5 physical education in the Albuquerque Public Schools and was education policy advisor for former Governor Gary Johnson.

“The bill will allow low-income parents to select the school that’s best for the education of their child,” he said, “and the reduced enrollment will allow the public school districts to reduce class sizes and have lower student-teacher ratios.”

Walsh also pointed out another feature of the bill that’s likely to attract the interest of lawmakers in these times of tight budgets: It calls for no new dollars.

New Mexico Democrats first supported school choice legislation two years ago when Aragon introduced the Student Options Act, SB443, to provide school choice for dropouts and for children who qualified for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program in Albuquerque. Although the bill ultimately died, it moved farther and faster than any school choice legislation previously had.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The text of New Mexico Sen. Manny M. Aragon’s proposed “Parental School Choice Scholarships Act,” SB300, is available online at http://www.legis.state.nm.us/Sessions/04%20Regular/bills/senate/SB0300.html.