School Vouchers: A Report from the Western Front

Report Education

School Vouchers: A Report from the Western Front

April 7, 2000 20 min read
The Honorable Gary Johnson
Senior Research Fellow in Retirement Security and Financial Institutions


Our lecturer today is Gary Johnson, New Mexico's 26th chief executive, who has dedicated his time in office to improving education for New Mexico's children. He has a few other things on his agenda as well, such as encouraging economic development, reducing crime, and making state government more efficient at the things state government should be doing.

Governor Johnson has worked to bring a common sense approach to state government. And, as someone who served in state government with Governor George Allen of Virginia, I certainly appreciate that approach. It worked for Governor Allen, and, Governor Johnson, I know it has worked successfully for you because you are the first governor in New Mexico's history to serve two consecutive terms. Gary Johnson was first elected in November of 1994 and re-elected in November of 1998.

Governor Johnson is a firm believer in citizen service, so after this term he will return to his business, a full-service commercial and industrial construction company, which he and his wife started.

As many of you know, Governor Johnson has been fighting for school vouchers to bring choice and real reform to all schools and substantial improvements to student academic performance.

During his tenure as governor, he has also signed legislation to cut taxes, something we all like to hear about, and also to reduce the number of state employees. Welfare reform is taking place in New Mexico, and on his watch two new privatized prisons have been opened to keep violent criminals behind bars.

Governor Johnson was born in North Dakota, moved south to New Mexico where he graduated from high school, and then went on to receive his bachelor's degree in political science from the University of New Mexico. He and Mrs. Johnson have two children, which explains one reason why he might be concerned about improving education. But we know that he's committed to all of the young people of New Mexico because his effort has been creative, it has been sustained, and even though he was not successful in this last session of the state legislature, he is committed to not giving up. He continues to travel across the state and indeed across the country to champion this idea of school vouchers for all students.

He also promotes physical fitness among New Mexicans. He was the first governor to compete in and finish the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii, an event he intends to participate in again this year. He reminded me as we were speaking earlier that he was up at 4:30 this morning to swim two miles and run five miles. So he already has put in almost a full day's effort before he came here.

Every year since 1994, he has ridden his bike across New Mexico for his "Trek for Trash" program. This is an effort not only to bring awareness about physical fitness but also to improve and demonstrate good stewardship for our environmental resources.

When he completes his work for New Mexico, he plans to climb Mount Everest. So I'm very pleased to welcome to The Heritage Foundation today Governor Gary Johnson, who is going to share with us his thoughts about how to improve education, not only in New Mexico but also across this country, and bring academic achievement to students everywhere.

Becky Norton Dunlop is Vice President for External Relations at The Heritage Foundation.


As Becky said, I started a business in 1974 as a one-person handyman, and by 1994, we had 1,000 people employed--electrical, mechanical, plumbing, pipefitting. It was really a dream come true. I did some things then that I still do today: show up on time, tell the truth, try and give people a little bit more than what I promised I would give them.

I am going to compete in the Iron Man Triathlon for the third time in Hawaii, by invitation, three weeks from now. That is like a baseball player going to the World Series, or a football player going to the Super Bowl. I'm a triathlete, so I'm very excited about it.

I have always held that life's highest calling is doing good by others, and I've always believed that politics was a way of doing that.

When I ran for governor in 1993, it was my first run for political office. I want to stress this: Not one person asked me to run for governor of New Mexico, not one. I chose to run for governor of New Mexico. I had never been involved in politics before. I'd never donated to a campaign, never pounded in a campaign sign.

I introduced myself to the Republican Party in the fall of 1993, which was just a couple of weeks before I announced, and what they told me was we like you, we like what you're saying, but you need to understand that you'll never get elected; it just won't happen.

I do believe that serving as governor is about citizen service. I think that we have an obligation to get in, make a contribution, and then get out. I am a firm believer in that. I also believe that I have been given an incredible opportunity, and I want to make the most of that opportunity. I'll also tell you there are many in New Mexico who would say I have not done anything positive for the state. I recognize that as part of the whole equation.

Life is about living and doing the most that we can with the time that we have. As elected officials, our time is limited. We need to make the most out of it. I remember reading Dick Leider's book, The Power of Purpose. Dick interviewed hundreds of people in their 70s and 80s and asked them what they would do differently. They said, "I would see the big picture. I would be more courageous. I would make a difference."

My biggest fear in leaving office is leaving and thinking coulda, shoulda, woulda. The time for all of us is right now. We need to make the most of the time that we have.

My Agenda
Since taking office, we've remained really focused on improving the quality of life in New Mexico, and I think four areas really make up quality of life: (1) improving our educational system, (2) growing the economy and creating better jobs, (3) reducing crime, and (4) making government more efficient.

I think we've been pushing the envelope in all of these areas. We have two new privately run prisons, for about two-thirds of what it costs us to run state prisons. And that's in the face of a crime problem that had criminals out on the street rather than behind bars.

We're building 500 miles of new four-lane highways in the state of New Mexico. That's almost doubling the four-lane highway system in the state.

We reformed welfare in New Mexico. We reformed Medicaid saving $500 million by moving to a managed care system from fee-for-service.

As for government efficiency, we reduced the number of state employees by about 1,200. And what I argue in New Mexico is, if you haven't noticed a difference in service, then certainly we have to be doing a better job because we're doing it with 1,200 fewer employees. And that's never happened in the history of the state.

There hasn't been one single tax raised in the last five years in New Mexico. We have reduced taxes, but not as much as I would like.

Prior to getting elected, I promised to bring a common sense business approach to state government. I always thought that government passed too many laws. That's something that I still believe.

So, as governor, I have vetoed more bills than all the other 49 governors combined. I have vetoed about 500 bills during my five years in office.

In the spirit of no regrets, I think there are three issues that really remain in New Mexico and in the country that need to be resolved. One is the need to give a school voucher to every single student in this country. I think that this is the reform that's most needed when it comes to schools. I think we need to reduce personal income taxes in this country. And I really think that we need to reassess our war on drugs; it has been a miserable failure.

With regard to taxes, simply put, I think that we need to allow people to keep more of the money they make. Taxes are a real incentive or they're a disincentive. If you want people to drive a pickup truck, just give them a credit for buying a pickup truck. See what happens to pickup truck sales. You want to reduce pickup truck sales, put a heavy tax on them.

You want people to be productive, just reduce their income taxes. Depending on our income level, we're paying 50 percent of what we make to the government. What message are we sending to our citizens?

My Number One Priority
I think that we need to issue a voucher to every single school-age student. I realize this sounds frightening to a lot of people at first, but for a moment consider New Mexico. We add more and more and more money into a system, yet we continue to struggle with higher dropout rates, lower test scores, increased school violence...and the list of problems goes on and on and on.

We're dealing with a monopoly and our goal here is to give our kids a better chance to succeed. I think that the reality of public school systems today is that they are not providing the opportunities children need. I think that schools in this country are in a state of crisis. It's time to consider dramatic reform.

In my opinion, the system will only react and improve through the influence of vouchers. And I've heard many, many criticisms of vouchers. We need to open education to competition and we need to do that through vouchers. So, let's take a few minutes and consider the objections I hear all the time:

  • Aren't vouchers going to take money away from the public schools?

Well, in New Mexico, we're proposing to give every single student a voucher--and in our state that's 330,000 vouchers.

This would not take money away from public education. We valued our vouchers at $3,500 each, when in fact we're spending about $5,500 a year to put a child through public school. So, if you do the math, you'll see that any child, who found an alternative to public education and used our voucher to leave public school, would leave $2,000 behind. This would actually increase the per-pupil unit value for students who remain in public schools. That's our proposal.

  • Don't you understand that all we need to do is just spend more money? I mean, all you have to do is pay teachers more, lower classroom size, and provide some good professional development for our teachers.

I have a feeling that argument is going to stay with us for the next 20 years, unless we enact vouchers.

Did I mention that in New Mexico, since I've been governor, we've increased spending for K-12 education from $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion? By all measurements, however, just like public school systems around the country, we are doing a little bit worse from year to year. Do you know of any other aspect of our lives where we would allow this to continue?

  • Aren't vouchers going to help only the rich?

My answer is that the rich have already made a choice. The rich have moved into neighborhoods that have the best schools. That's the reality. Those who can't afford to live in the nice neighborhoods and who live in neighborhoods where they don't have a choice, most often have the worst schools. Vouchers give the poorest kids a chance to escape the worst schools and go to better schools by choice.

  • Isn't parental involvement the important ingredient in this? Some parents just aren't interested in their kids' education.

Well, I say that's baloney. I say that it doesn't matter whether a parent is a cardiothoracic surgeon or a mother on welfare, parents care about their kids. It's just that some parents are in economic situations where they can't make a difference, where they can't help their kids, and their kids just drop out.

  • Won't vouchers mean the best and the brightest are going to leave public schools? We're going to leave the public schools with the dregs.

Well, I take offense when you say that the kids who stay in public schools are all under-performers. Many of these children just don't have the opportunities they need to excel. And given a chance, given a choice, they do perform. At least with vouchers you're giving kids an opportunity to do better, something that doesn't exist today.

  • Don't public schools have to take all kids while private schools can pick and choose their students?

Don't kid yourselves. Public schools don't take all kids today. They don't and they shouldn't, because it just doesn't make sense to.

Public schools in many cases are contracting out those kids with very special needs. So, in essence, vouchers are already in use today. We need to understand that public schools do not take all kids.

And did you know that today federal money follows a special needs child whether that child is in public school or private school? This would not change under a voucher system.

  • What about the kids with disabilities? Aren't they going to be left behind?

Again, understand, that a kid with a disability does not have a $3,500 unit value. In New Mexico, we're not spending $5,500 for each child with a disability. We might be spending $10,000 or $15,000. We have a formula based on the amount of money that we have to spend.

So children with disabilities, under a voucher formula in New Mexico, might receive $10,000 each for their education. Let's give a kid with a disability a choice too.

Now, if the public schools are doing the best possible job that they can, why would these kids want to go anywhere else?

  • Aren't vouchers unconstitutional? You can't give money to private schools.

There are 66 voucher programs nationwide, and I would think every single publicly funded program has been challenged constitutionally. The question is not are we giving money to private schools. What determines the constitutionality is that we're giving the money to kids. We're giving the money to parents, not to private schools. That constitutional argument has survived in all of these test cases.

And I've got news for you. If it doesn't survive constitutionally, we've got a whole lot of constitutional-like questions that will need to be answered. What about the vouchers we give to mothers to use for child care? There are a whole lot of government programs that could be equated with school vouchers, where we don't provide the service, where we give parents the money, and they go out and they find the service.

Arguably the most successful voucher program of all time was the GI bill, which helped make America what it is today. It gave GIs returning from the war the ability to choose which public, private, religious or vocational institution they wanted to attend.

  • What makes you think a voucher is going to cover the cost of tuition? Thirty-five hundred dollars isn't going to do it.

Well, surprisingly, New Mexico right now has 256 private schools and over half of them would accept a $3,500 voucher. If there are no alternatives to public schools, then what have we lost by giving every single student in the state a voucher?

  • Can't we get schools back to the way they were when we were growing up?

Many in my generation say we were treated really well by the public schools and that it was so much better then. Well, that may have been so, but we didn't have a choice then, and wouldn't it have been better for us if we'd had a choice?

  • Won't vouchers mean a return to segregation?

The fact is that segregation still exists in public schools. The fact is that private schools are more integrated than public schools. You have segregation in the public schools because of the "non-choice" that gets made for so many families whose only affordable housing happens to be located in the worst school districts.

  • Don't public schools have rules and regulations that the private schools don't have? This is not a level playing field.

There is no reason why public schools can't do away with many of their senseless rules tomorrow and adopt the rules and regulations that we want--no reason in the world. Whether we're talking about discipline, higher academic standards, or longer hours, there is no reason why any single school district in this country can't adopt new rules and regulations--none.

Why don't they? Because there is no incentive. Implement school vouchers and watch how quickly public schools change their rules and regulations to compete for students.

  • What is going to happen to teachers?

Well, I would hope that the best teachers get paid more. And I would hope that the worst teachers might actually lose their jobs, something that does not happen today in public schools.

Why is there a fear among public school teachers that private education is going to somehow threaten their salaries when, in every example that I know of, the private sector pays more than the public sector? If students choose private schools, more high-paying teaching positions will be created.

  • How are private schools going to be held accountable?

Well, right now in New Mexico, we have standards that you have to adhere to in order to become a private school and these standards will remain intact.

We have passed legislation that is going to require testing of all kids in public schools, and we added to the bill a provision that private schools accepting state-funded vouchers would have to implement the same standardized testing

  • What about the rural areas? There aren't any choices in rural areas. These vouchers aren't going to do us any good.

Tomorrow there may not be alternatives in rural areas, but issue a voucher to every single student in the state, give it a little bit of time, and there will be alternatives. Then all schools will improve because there will be competition, and that could include competition from rural cyber-schools.

What is to prevent Internet delivery of education to K-12? Well, there are states right now that have implemented that. In Oregon, for example, you can get a certified high school diploma over the Internet for about $1,800 a year.

Give vouchers to every single student in the State of New Mexico or in any state, and you will see more of that kind of innovation. Today, there's little incentive.

I think that all the objections I mentioned can be overcome and that we can make a better life for our kids by bringing competition to public schools. How have we come to think so much "in the box?" When we talk about resources for education, why don't we question if we need to go to school for twelve and one-half years? How many of us have spent time in class that wasn't as productive as it might have been?

For a lot of kids it's a sentence to go to school for twelve and one-half years. Why aren't we testing competencies to get kids out of the school system sooner and into higher education? Why aren't the resources that are left redirected at kids who truly need them?

We have a system today that is so "in the box" that I'm convinced the only way to get it out of the box is to issue vouchers and bring competition into the mix. "Bring your brightest kid to my school because we can get him out of school in 11 years rather than twelve and one-half, or nine years rather than twelve and one-half."

In closing, I would argue that education reform is the biggest challenge facing this country. Only by opening the current system to competition--with vouchers--will we truly be able to make a difference. And with that, I would be happy to entertain any questions or comments that any of you might have.

Q & A

Q: For a lot of issues, it's all about language. Doesn't the word "voucher" give people who are against vouchers an issue?

A: Early on I made a decision. Unlike many of my colleagues, I went straight for the V-word--vouchers. I might also add that when I started out in New Mexico talking about vouchers, it was about 60-40 against vouchers. Today, it's about 60-40 for vouchers.

Q: Where have you found the greatest support for vouchers in New Mexico? And, second, how do you make the case for vouchers to teachers?

A: Greatest support is from every single group that I go and address, but I don't address groups if they aren't willing to hear me out on vouchers. That's an up-front.

Making the case to teachers. Again, I'm of the belief that you just have to plug along. You educate teachers that this is not the bogeyman, and that vouchers will improve education.

And, looking at the experience of the 66 voucher programs nationwide, for the most part, they've been started up by teachers who have not had their ambitions or their needs fulfilled in the public education system.

It is my belief that anything passes if you have the overwhelming support of the public. And that's the direction that I am taking this. Right now, there is not enough legislative support for this in New Mexico. In the year 2000, all of our legislative seats are up for re-election. It is my belief that we are gaining more and more support and that there is an understanding in New Mexico that this isn't about a pilot project; this is about every single student in the state receiving a voucher.

So that's been my tack legislatively, to take this to the people. And what I'm finding are more and more legislators talking about doing a pilot project. That is not my approach. My goal is to make New Mexico the model for what would happen if you were to issue every single student in the state a voucher. What would education be like if there was open competition for all students?

Q: Governor, what's the situation with the Catholic Church? I understand that originally they had supported you for vouchers. Then in the midst of the legislative session, they backed out and said no, it would hurt the public schools. Do you really need to get the Catholic Church on board?

A: I think that the Catholic Church is overwhelmingly on board in favor of vouchers. It's just that the Archbishop is not. It became an issue of teachers unions and Democrat politics rather than what was best for our children.

Q: What kind of reaction are you getting from businesses?

A: I think they've reacted abominably from the start. They say they want educational reform, but they don't want to press too hard. They want schools to be held more accountable. They want higher test scores. But to do that they say we're going to have to understand that the teachers want to get paid more. And, certainly, we need to look at reduced class size and more professional development. Wishy, washy.

Come on, business. Giving a voucher to every single student in the state is making a business out of education. What could be more exciting than that concept?

Q: Your neighbor Arizona has brought a lot of competition to education through charter schools. Is there a reason that you prefer vouchers to charter schools?

A: Actually, we passed a charter school bill allowing up to 100 charter schools in New Mexico. I think that charter schools are a real vehicle for public schools to compete in a voucher environment, in a choice environment. But it's just a step. The end step is, in my opinion, total choice, total competition.

--The Honorable Gary E. Johnson is the Governor of New Mexico.


The Honorable Gary Johnson

Senior Research Fellow in Retirement Security and Financial Institutions