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New Mexico weighs options as online schools falter

SANTA FE – New Mexico state lawmakers expressed dismay at lagging academic results and spending practices at online charter schools on Tuesday, as education regulators seek to de-authorize the state’s largest school devoted to teaching over the internet.

A panel of lawmakers received a new study from two legislative agencies showing that the three so-called virtual charter schools in New Mexico provide lower academic achievement in general than classroom-based schools – even though the online schools enroll fewer at-risk students from impoverished, non-English speaking families.

The study tracked academic results, school finances and governance at charter schools that oversee some 2,150 students across the state where students receive all their instruction online rather than in classrooms.

It found math and reading proficiency lagged behind averages at brick-and-mortar schools. Far fewer instructors and counselors were available per student at online schools, though they receive equal per-student state funding and sidestepped expense for maintaining classrooms and other buildings. About one-in-10 students achieved math proficiency at one online school.

Republican Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho said online schools should be able to help students in remote, rural settings where students might otherwise commute for three or four hours a day.

“It’s costing us a lot of money to get very poor results,” he said.

New Mexico education authorities last week took steps to de-authorize and defund the largest online school, Santa Fe-based New Mexico Connections Academy, because of faltering academic achievement among students, along with concerns about truancy. About 1,350 students across the state were enrolled in the school as of last year.

Analysts with the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Committee and Legislative Education Study Committee also raised concerns about academic performance and spending at New Mexico Virtual Academy, which serves about 500 students in grades 6-12 and is overseen by Carlsbad Municipal Schools, and Pecos Connections Academy, which serves K-12 students and is supervised by Carlsbad Municipal Schools.

The study highlighted reliance on for-profit curriculum providers, and the potential influence of those companies on day-to-day education decisions in a state that prohibits for-profit schools.

Without competitive bidding, the three virtual charter schools sent $7.5 million during the fiscal year ending in June to Virginia-based K12 Inc. and Maryland-based Connections Education, a unit of Pearson, the study found.