6-21 Fathers of NM Public Schools
By JAY MILLER
SANTA FE -- A recent column proclaiming territorial Gov. Edmund G. Ross "the father of New Mexico public schools" brought a reminder that public schools didn't become a reality until the administration of Gov. Bradford Prince, two years after Ross left office.
That is correct. Gov. Prince also was a strong supporter of public education. He and Ross both were New Mexicans before they were appointed governor by presidents of the United States, which helped them in tip-toeing through the mine fields of New Mexico politics necessary to accomplish their goal.
And Ross had one other advantage going for him. He was a Republican, working with a fiercely Republican Legislature. Ross was a Democrat.
Here's a little background on how it all came to pass.
When New Mexico became a part of the United States in the mid-1800s, the Catholic Church had educated this state's children for 250 years. Much of the schooling was religious but the 3Rs also were taught from textbooks written by highly-educated Jesuits. School years were as short as one month, seldom more than three months.
With the arrival of Easterners to their newly-acquired territory, there soon was a move to establish public schools � and a cultural war began. The Anglos came from a tradition of publicly-financed, nonsectarian schools.
They were steeped in the mores of religious freedom, for which many of their ancestors had fled Europe. The First Amendment right to a separation of church and state conflicted diametrically with the Spanish tradition of church-state union.
New Mexico had been settled by Spain, both for riches and for conversion of natives to the Roman Catholic faith. When presented with numerous charges of mistreated natives and abuse of power by the outpost's first governor, Juan de Onate, the Spanish government came close to abandoning its New Mexico colony. It realized that after 10 years of searching, it wasn't going to find those seven cities of gold the natives kept telling them were over the next hill.
But the church said the conversion rate was running higher than expected, so the colony remained. The capital was relocated. Onate was recalled and a new governor appointed.
With this tradition of church and state being inexorably intertwined, New Mexico's Hispanics saw the move for public schools as an attack on their religion and their culture. Publicly-financed schools were fine, but they should be run by the church.
For many years after New Mexico became a territory, Hispanics controlled the Legislature. Federally appointed governors fought for public schools, but with no success. In 1863 the Legislature let Gov. Henry Connelley know where he stood by putting schools in the hands of Bishop Lamy.
In 1878 President Rutherford Hayes appointed Lew Wallace to straighten out New Mexico. Gov. Wallace, an author, scholar, statesman and a distinguished Civil War general, advocated for public schools, tried to find a jail that would hold Billy the Kid and wrote Ben Hur. His one success didn't do New Mexico much good, prompting Wallace's oft-quoted observation: "Every calculation based on experience elsewhere, fails in New Mexico."
Wallace's first attempt at legislation to establish public schools not only met with utter defeat, lawmakers sent him a message by authorizing the Jesuits to own unlimited school property, without taxation, and then overriding the governor's veto of the legislation. Wallace tried again in 1880 with no better luck. When his term ended in 1881, he couldn't wait to get out of the state.
Finally with the appointment of Gov. Edmund G. Ross in 1885, the public school movement began to experience some success. Ross, the former Kansas senator who cast the deciding vote not to remove President Andrew Johnson from office, had moved to New Mexico in the early 1880s, and so, understood the state better than previous governors.
Along with Gov. Bradford Prince, another New Mexican, who followed him, the two were able to make public schools a reality in 1891.