What’s next for char­ter schools? Gov­er­nor pro­poses mora­to­rium.

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Nott [email protected]­i­can.com ROBERT NOTT/NEW MEX­I­CAN FILE PHOTO

Char­ter school ad­vo­cates claim they’ve been on the de­fen­sive for years — even un­der the friendly ad­min­is­tra­tion of for­mer Gov. Su­sana Martinez.

Un­der Gov. Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham, what’s next for char­ters is, well, un­charted ter­ri­tory.

While on the cam­paign trail last year, Lu­jan Gr­isham said she would im­pose a mora­to­rium on open­ing new char­ter schools un­til state leaders had time to re­view how those in place were per­form­ing. What that means in a year when pub­lic education fund­ing will be front and cen­ter at the Round­house re­mains un­cer­tain.

About 26,000 stu­dents at­tend char­ter schools in New Mex­ico, some­where be­tween 7 per­cent and 8 per­cent of the state’s pub­lic school pop­u­la­tion of 330,000, Pahl said.

The no­tion of any­thing lim­it­ing the growth of char­ter schools is un­set­tling for their op­er­a­tors and sup­port­ers.

“I think the state would be greatly hurt by a mora­to­rium,” said Matt Pahl, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit Pub­lic Char­ter Schools of New Mex­ico, for­merly the New Mex­ico Coali­tion for Char­ter Schools, an ad­vo­cacy and pol­i­cy­mak­ing en­tity.

“We would suf­fer for in­no­va­tion in pub­lic schools in this state if char­ter schools were not al­lowed to con­tinue to start up and try new ed­u­ca­tional ideas and meth­ods for our stu­dents,” he added. “This is not to say that school dis­tricts are not in­no­vat­ing; they are. But char­ter schools are more nim­ble and have room to try dif­fer­ent ideas.”

Rachel Se­wards, who just re­ceived state ap­proval to open a char­ter school in Al­bu­querque later this year, agrees.

“I’m an ad­vo­cate for op­tions for par­ents and stu­dents,” she said. “Char­ters of­fer that op­tion. And we have ed­u­ca­tional deserts in this state where there are not a lot of op­tions for fam­i­lies.”

Pro­po­nents of char­ters ar­gue that they give par­ents and stu­dents a chance to thrive with pro­grams that can be more ex­per­i­men­tal or cre­ative than tra­di­tional pub­lic schools.

But crit­ics cite na­tional stud­ies show­ing char­ter school stu­dents gen­er­ally don’t out­per­form their coun­ter­parts in other pub­lic schools and com­plain they draw much­needed fund­ing away from tra­di­tional schools. Some say that’s be­cause the schools op­er­ate un­der their own gov­ern­ing boards, with re­duced over­sight by the state and school dis­tricts.

In 2017, the State Au­di­tor’s Of­fice re­leased an au­dit of the Pub­lic Education De­part­ment that crit­i­cized the de­part­ment’s over­sight of state-char­tered schools, cit­ing pro­cure­ment code vi­o­la­tions, a lack of back­ground and li­cen­sure checks for ed­u­ca­tors, over­spend­ing and in­ef­fec­tive fi­nan­cial con­trols.

Pahl coun­tered that many of New Mex­ico’s char­ter schools are prov­ing them­selves aca­dem­i­cally by their school grades from the state, with 24 per­cent re­ceiv­ing A’s, 18 per­cent earn­ing B’s and 30 per­cent get­ting C’s.

“I’m not sure why we need to look at per­for­mance when our schools are per­form­ing this well,” he said. Char­ters of­ten at­tract stu­dents who have dropped out of tra­di­tional pub­lic schools, he added.

New Mex­ico has 97 char­ter schools, some over­seen by the state and oth­ers au­tho­rized by in­di­vid­ual school dis­tricts. In Santa Fe, the Acad­emy for Tech­nol­ogy and the Clas­sics is over­seen by Santa Fe Pub­lic Schools, while Monte del Sol Char­ter School and Turquoise Trail Char­ter El­e­men­tary School, among oth­ers, fall un­der state con­trol.

Like tra­di­tional pub­lic schools, char­ters are funded by the state through a per-stu­dent for­mula, and they can also rely on the state’s Pub­lic School Cap­i­tal Out­lay Coun­cil to ac­cess fund­ing for rent if they do not own a fa­cil­ity.

Char­ters also take ad­van­tage of the state’s small-school for­mula, which gives both tra­di­tional and char­ter schools ex­tra money if they have a small stu­dent en­roll­ment — 200 or fewer for el­e­men­tary schools, 400 or fewer for high schools — to help them pay for op­er­at­ing costs.

Though no leg­isla­tive bills had been filed by Fri­day to ad­just this for­mula, Pahl said pre­vi­ous leg­isla­tive ef­forts to al­ter it were aimed specif­i­cally at char­ter schools, and that any ef­fort to do that again this year would be “a threat” to those schools’ ex­is­tence.

Un­der Martinez, for­mer Pub­lic Education Sec­re­tary Hanna Skan­dera re­mained a vo­cal and en­er­getic pro­po­nent for char­ter schools, go­ing so far as to use her power to over­rule the Pub­lic Education Com­mis­sion, which au­tho­rizes char­ters, when it came to ap­prov­ing at least two new schools the com­mis­sion had re­jected.

And though the num­ber of char­ter schools did grow con­sid­er­ably dur­ing Martinez’s first term — nine in 2011 and 10 in 2012, for ex­am­ple — that fig­ure plateaued in her sec­ond term, with four open­ing in 2015, three open­ing in 2016 and just one open­ing per year in 2017 and 2018. And dur­ing that time, at least one school closed each year.

For­mer state Pub­lic Education Sec­re­tary-des­ig­nate Christo­pher Ruszkowski, cen­ter, vis­its with stu­dents at the Acad­emy for Tech­nol­ogy and the Clas­sics char­ter school in Santa Fe. The school earned an A last year in the state’s school grad­ing sys­tem.

GABRIELA CAM­POS/NEW MEX­I­CAN FILE PHOTO

Stu­dents at Turquoise Trail Char­ter El­e­men­tary School work on a project for the Fu­ture City Com­pe­ti­tion in Jan­uary 2017. The fu­ture of char­ter schools in New Mex­ico is in ques­tion with state gov­ern­ment un­der a new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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