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Committee looks at tightening charter school oversight

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico needs improved accountability for entities with authority over charter schools to address issues such as hopping from one school to another, seeking different – and sometimes easier – charter terms, the Legislative Education Study Committee concluded.

The committee noted that most conversations surrounding charters have been centered on individual schools but said there’s now a shift in focus to the school district or the Public Education Commission that oversee the schools.

The LESC asked the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to evaluate New Mexico charter law and policies and recommend improvements.

“By holding charter school authorizers accountable for the performance and operations of charter schools in their portfolios, they should be less likely to … renew poorly performing schools, and less reluctant to close them if performance fails to improve,” according to a LESC brief prepared by analyst Kevin Force.

Lisa Grover, senior director of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, spoke to the committee at its July meeting. She said New Mexico’s charter law was ranked No. 25 out of 45 this year.

While Grover highlighted the strengths of New Mexico’s law, such as clear reporting requirements and strong charter contracts and performance frameworks, she also highlighted where the state law could improve.

For instance, she said the law is vague on renewal standards and noted there is no “default closure” procedure if schools aren’t meeting minimum requirements.

“NM’s law is vague on renewal standards: schools must make ‘substantial progress’ toward academic goals,” she pointed out to committee members, adding that a clearer definition is needed.

Required evaluations for those overseeing charters and clear consequences if they don’t follow the rules were also suggested. And Grover presented the idea of a state oversight body that monitors them, adding that it should have the authority to penalize those who weren’t performing well, including suspending their authority to approve new schools.

But the legislative committee also noted that creating such a body would “vary among jurisdictions, and may require substantial legislative and regulatory work to achieve.”

Joseph Escobedo, Albuquerque Public Schools senior director of innovation and school choice, thought the discussions the committee was having will spur collaboration in the state, but he noted that ironing out the practicality and implementation would take more development.

“The most important part (of the discussions) is the consistency of supporting charters and also holding them accountable,” he said.

But Grover’s presentation wasn’t just about things New Mexico could generate. It also addressed existing statute that should be enforced, including an annual report the state Public Education Department should submit.

State Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said at the meeting that report hasn’t been submitted since 2013.

That report should show charters’ academic growth and how well each is implementing its mission, Stewart explained.

Katie Poulos, director of Options for Parents and Families Division at PED, personally took the blame for the failure to submit them.

“I have fallen short,” she said at the meeting.

PED told the Journal it does plan to complete the report this year and said there “were several time-sensitive, high-priority items that consumed the Charter School Division’s … bandwidth over the past year.”

Either the school district or the PEC should submit annual reports, too, outlining school performance, which Grover also emphasized must be enforced as well.

Ultimately, Grover felt the policy recommendations would create better accountability and particularly address “authorizer shopping” – which the committee defines as an attempt to find an oversight body “that offers better charter terms, or is more likely to overlook some performance issues.”

More than 30 charters in the state have changed chartering authority at least once, according to the committee.

Last year in Albuquerque, four low-performing charter schools sought reauthorization from APS after learning that the PED would likely be recommending non-renewal. And later last year, Architecture Construction and Engineering Leadership High School, Health Leadership High School and Technology Leadership High School received support for charter authorization from the district.

“Charter schools with a D or F school grade for two consecutive years should be allowed to change authorizers only if both authorizers agree,” Grover said.

Other policy recommendations from Grover to improve New Mexico’s law included:

• Have requirements for districts and the PEC to close chronically low-performing charters.

• Statutorily create ways to replicate and expand high-performing schools.

• Require annual training for charter authorities.

• Create statute specifically for full-time virtual schools.

Stewart noted authorization accountability is still in the discussion phase but said the committee is trying to craft a bill with national association and other stakeholder input to address some of the recommendations.

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