New Mexico is an amazing place, full of culture and diversity, but we are crippled by a failing education system. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released last October found that our state’s fourth and eighth graders were at the very bottom nationally in terms of both reading and math scores.

More recently the 2023 “Kids Count” report ranked New Mexico 50th (again, dead last) in terms of conditions for children, including education. More concerning is that New Mexico is aging quickly while younger families and those with children are leaving the state. This does not reflect the beauty and potential of New Mexicans.

Improving conditions for our children is a complicated challenge. We believe that one underappreciated solution comes in the form of the state’s non-public schools.

These schools include Catholic and Protestant schools as well as non-religious schools. For the 2023 school year- there are 188 private schools serving 23,197 students in New Mexico (there are 928 public schools, serving 323,976 students). Seven percent of all New Mexico K-12 students are educated in private schools (compared to the national average of 10%).

According to NAEP, “If the Catholic schools were a state of their own, they would rank No. 1 in education for the nation.” We educate children from all walks of life and families of all income levels and races. Our mission is to serve the needs of the community.

It is imperative the Legislature and governor do everything in their power to improve child outcomes. Money from the oil and gas surplus continues to flow into the State’s educational system, but the educational performance “needle” remains unmoved. Is it not a better solution to support a system that is succeeding? Giving parents a choice to send their child to a school that meets their child’s needs is that path for their success.

New Mexico’s non-public schools can help solve our state’s educational challenges if only the Legislature were to assist.

SB 113, introduced by Democrat Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino during the 2023 session, would have provided a modest program of tax credits to allow individuals and businesses to take a credit against their New Mexico taxes to help provide scholarships to private schools for low-income children.

This type of legislation has been introduced in New Mexico dating back to the Richardson Administration, but has never passed. Similar laws are on the books in 20 states from Rhode Island to Alabama.

Another bill introduced by Republican Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho would have allowed parents and their children to direct education dollars to the school of their choice or private school tuition, tutoring services, textbooks, and instructional materials, nationally standardized assessments, and other educational charges approved by the Education Department. It was killed in its first committee.

New Mexico’s private schools should be a resource for state policymakers who claim to want to see our state improve educational outcomes.

In 2021, chair of the powerful House Tax Committee, Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, stated “Native American children have been left to rot because of where they come from for many years. How much longer do our children have to fail for us to get this right?” Before becoming House Speaker, Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque said he had “started to question whether more money is actually needed beyond what we’ve invested.” Martinez said, “I’d hate to be back here in 20 years talking about how nothing has changed.”

We agree. It is time for these and other New Mexico legislators to harness the power of our non-public schools. The parents in our state need to be heard, “Let the money follow the child. Give us a choice to save our children, our future and our state.” Private schools are often accused of being only for “rich kids;” it’s the Legislature that has the opportunity to make sure that is not the case. How much longer does New Mexico have to be last in education? We can make a difference!

Donna Illebrun is superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe; Bob Ippel is executive director of Rehoboth Christian School, serving a largely Navajo population near Gallup, and president of the New Mexico Association for Non-public Schools.