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Billionaires not best for charter schools

New Mexico is a special place in many ways, but especially when it comes to charter schools.

Most charters here are equal places of opportunity thoughtfully crafted by the community members that they serve. Unlike most states, these unconventional schools embody the specialized approaches to education that were at the heart of the charter movement.

Unfortunately, those unique charters are currently under threat. Several “nonprofit” organizations have suddenly appeared and are showing a questionable amount of influence on New Mexico’s charter school landscape.

The wealthiest people in the world, Gates, Walton, etc. fund charter management organizations (CMOs) and those funders are in the press a lot lately. “Billionaires Fuel U.S. Charter School Movement” by the Associated Press discusses Gates’s excessive funding for charter school organizations, even when it is clear that the community itself rejects the proliferation of such schools.

Another article, “Gates spent millions trying to improve teaching, but it was a bust,” from the Washington Post, discusses the 526-page Rand report that showed no connection between teacher evaluations and tests scores for improving outcomes for low-income minority students.

Apparently, the billionaires are not the most qualified to mold education policy. Their solutions are not evidence-based and their results not game-changing. Despite these revelations, New Mexico’s leaders appear intent on kowtowing to them. Recently, organizations called Building Excellent Schools (BES) and Excellent Schools New Mexico (ESNM) have slipped into New Mexico and are pushing their agenda.

NM’s charters are designed by passionate educators and parents who live and breathe the needs of our children. While the PED recently received $22.5 million in funding to support charter schools, it is clear that the funding will not go to community charters that truly serve the most disenfranchised students. Instead, the PED is intent on eliminating such schools and funding only the ones tied to CMOs, and that receive A’s on the school report card (A’s they easily came by as these schools rarely serve the most difficult students).

This disregard for our current charters is not unfounded nor unrecorded. In 2016, the Las Cruces Sun News reported that 29 schools filed a complaint about PED’s Katie Poulus who was “creating an atmosphere of hostility between the CSD (the Charter School Division of PED) and the state-charter schools.” Could this be because Poulos wants to pave the way for outside groups?

Both BES and ESNM, organizations that are not from New Mexico, have carved out a powerful position for themselves, funded not only by billionaire philanthropic organizations, but also by the PED. These organizations, among many others (Bellwether Education Partners, Charter School Growth Fund, New Schools Venture Fund, IDEA Public Schools … ), are specifically mentioned in the $22.5 million grant and have been sanctioned by PED as what NM needs to help our poor, minority populations.

Further, the educational model endorsed by the aforementioned groups is most often a “no-excuses” school – models reminiscent of the antiquated Catholic school approach where fearful kids sit up straight and uniformly repeat memorized facts ad nauseam. These schools ignore cultural relevance and when students do not make the grade, they are gently but intentionally pushed out. Why regress to such a model? Is it because billionaires have spent oodles of money to convince us that this is what works for kids? I have to ask myself whether or not these powerful people send their own children to such schools.

When one starts to connect the dots between the billionaires, these charter “advocacy” organizations and the no-excuses schools that they mass-produce, the picture becomes painfully clear.

In the minds of the PED and Governor Martinez, the innovative schools created by and for New Mexicans are no longer good enough. Local officials are choosing more borrowed tactics. They brought in the school grades from Florida and the proceeding Teacher Evaluation system. As we see from above, these billionaire-developed reforms are not the silver bullets we were told that they would be.

Sadly for our kids, these solutions will do more to hurt them than help them. However, somewhere and someplace, Martinez and her cronies will profit and move on.

Stofocik, of Santa Fe, formerly worked in the Charter School Division at PED and is now an educational consultant.