Back to (failing) school

With everything going on these days relating to health care and town hall meetings, it is easy to forget that millions of American children are heading back to school over the next few weeks. Recently, liberal Senator and regular Alibi columnist Jerry Ortiz y Pino wrote a column in which he advocated for change in New Mexico’s abysmal education system.

One excellent point Ortiz y Pino made was:

I think at its heart, the problem with our schools graduating only half the kids who enter them is that we are operating out of the wrong model. We are thinking about the schools as the place where society builds its future members, a sort of factory where they are assembled, tested and stamped “ready.” (Although no factory that discarded half of the products on its assembly line could stay in business very long.)

He then goes on to outline four ideas for reform that, quite frankly, seem to be thin gruel indeed considering the state of the system. Ortiz y Pino’s ideas are:

• Stop suspending students. Instead, require in-school suspension, after-school tutoring and week-end remediation.

• Greatly expand vocational and trade opportunities, relying heavily on the state’s network of community colleges for concurrent enrollment while students are still in high school.

• Every elementary and middle school should have after-school programming for every student.

• We need many more charter or alternative schools for high school students who are not doing well in class or who have already dropped out. Small communities with attention given to differing learning styles—accompanied by supportive services to deal with family and community barriers to learning—have proven effective in helping kids graduate.

I wrote a letter (cut and pasted below) to the Alibi in which I applauded Ortiz y Pino for advocating reform, but encouraged more dramatic and systemic education reforms.

Jerry Ortiz y Pino makes some good points in his article “The Dropout Factor” [Re: July 30-Aug. 5]. The problem is that his solutions are far too limited in scope to actually solve the massive problem of having a statewide dropout rate approaching 50 percent.

Rather than tinkering around the edges of a failed system, we need dramatic changes. Ideas might include a system of tax credits to allow taxpayers to donate a portion of their New Mexico tax liability to provide scholarships for low-income and needy children, a voucher program targeted at “special needs” and foster children who are particularly vulnerable to dropping out, and an emphasis on reduced school sizes. In general, our schools also need to focus a greater percentage of their resources on the classroom rather than wasting it on bureaucracy (New Mexico has one of the most bloated education bureaucracies in the nation).

Charter and alternative schools have been a big hit with parents and students, but New Mexico needs to go further, beyond the government-run school model, in order to improve educational outcomes. And if we try these innovative reforms and nothing changes? We can always return to the failed status quo.

Paul J. Gessing
President, Rio Grande Foundation

Interestingly enough, while Ortiz y Pino is one of the most liberal legislators in Santa Fe, he has apparently caused a great deal of consternation among the Albuquerque Teachers Federation.