As a long-time educator, I have supported almost all bond issues and all tax-funded programs which support elementary, secondary, and tertiary education. But I have concluded that good reasons argue for not supporting any and all education bond issues at this time and for some time to come. The first target of my “no” is bond issue #3.
Rejecting bond issues can be a constructive way—indeed, it is often the only way—to deliver a message to politicians who assume that a good cause will always secure public support. Usually, they are right, and the public reflexively votes approval of education-related bonds. But a good cause which never achieves a good effect does not deserve such support. Public education at all three levels in New Mexico has been mediocre for decades, perhaps throughout statehood, and the expenditure of tax and bond dollars in the name of public education has achieved little. So it is long since time for the public to say “no” and to repeat “no” until politicians and educators reform public education and stop squandering a poor state’s scarce resources.
The choice—to vote for bond issue #3 or to send a message by voting against it—depends on the circumstances and the message. The circumstances in Las Cruces are clear. The NMSU Board of Regents—Governor Martinez’s two appointees included—unanimously voted nearly half a million dollars to a president who, it claims, resigned her position. Far from credible, the claim reflects the corruptness of NMSU governance, not one whit less so under Martinez, who promised to end corruption. That half a million dollars should have been spent on something of educational value.
The message is also clear—actually three of them. One, no money for waste. If state educational institutions cannot spend money responsibly, for mission-oriented purposes, then taxpayers should not vote them more money. A showing that public expenditures are not waste requires that they be explained in detail—how much, what, and why. What the NMSU regents have done is to use hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to pay off on a fired official to keep quiet about, if not official misconduct, official decisions inappropriate or unworthy at best—likely theirs or NMSU’s most senior staffs’—on the misuse or waste of other hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
Two, no support without accountability provided by real transparency. As used by NMSU regents in this case, the word “transparency” is meaningless; they intone the word as if doing so magically ensures, or assures everyone of, the result. Protecting individual privacy in “personnel matters” is a good idea in most cases, especially rank-and-file employees. But it is a bad idea in some cases, particularly senior officials, for good reason. They occupy positions which have great power, shape policy, and implement it. Departures other than publicly planned retirements entitle the public to know how they have used or abused their power, and that and how their policies or performance has succeeded or failed. Without accountability and the real transparency which makes it possible, “public education” is an entirely private affair of politics of the worst and most wasteful kind, as New Mexicans have seen in Couture’s sudden, unexplained, and expensive departure from NMSU.
Three, no funding without participation. “Public education” is anything but public, as rigged elections favor interested parties, and unaccountable appointments reward political supporters. At the K-12 levels, separate elections for school board members and school bonds attract less than 10 percent of the electorate, mostly district employees and parents. The results are non-representative officials and taxation virtually without representation. Yet school boards limit public participation at board meetings or in standing and ad hoc committees. Boards of regents permit less public participation.
For these reasons, citizens have only one effective way to send a message to political and education officials: “no” on bonds.
My assumption thus far is that New Mexicans care about public education, but it is likely wrong. For the persistent mediocrity of public education means that neither citizens nor their representatives care very much about it. They give it lip-service and, in its name, waste resources, including about 45 percent of the annual state budget, which might be better spent on substantial benefit to the public. K-12 schools providing day-care for minors have some merit, but community colleges and state universities, some with low graduation rates for adults—about 7 percent at DACC, about 50 percent at NMSU—, may have less.
Otherwise, if citizens and representatives cared, the state would not lack a coherent philosophy, cogent policies, and concerted, consistent efforts to implement them for public benefit. In their absence, the only way to make sense of great expense for little benefit is to see that the purpose of educational institutions is primarily employment, secondarily education. Thus, State Sen. Carlos Cisneros argues for bond issue #3 because it will create much-needed jobs in construction; as an afterthought, he argues against its defeat owing to the Couture controversy because the unidentified new or improved facilities will do students $120 million worth of good (educational patriotism) and its defeat would mean the loss of jobs (scare tactic: now, not their creation). In addition, as the importance of NMSU donors has made clear, higher education is a dispenser of patronage, a plaything of elites, and a sine qua non of prestige.
The state cannot afford governor-appointed, legislature-approved, big-spending cronies, “hush money,” and “golden parachutes.” So, if change is to come, it must come by buyers’ rejection, not buyers’ remorse. “No” worked in 2010; “no” on bond issue #3 must work now, and “no” must work in 2014 and every two years thereafter until governors and legislators have demonstrated fiscal responsibility and legislated official accountability and public participation in public education.