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Senate bill draws pushback on charter school cap

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, co-sponsored Senate Bill 1, which would put an enrollment cap on charter school students. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal )

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A multifaceted Senate bill, which tackles a slew of education issues, such as giving teachers pay raises and putting additional dollars toward resources for at-risk students, ran into trouble Monday due to a provision in the legislation that would also cap charter school enrollment.

The bipartisan bill would limit total charter school enrollment in the state to 27,000 students for the 2019-2020 school year. A fiscal impact report on the bill estimates 26,200 students attend charters in the state, but charter leaders testified that number is closer to 26,500.

Senate Bill 1 would also give the state Public Education Department authority to set the maximum enrollment for individual charter schools based on the schools’ performance.

Many charter school leaders and some senators said they would back the bill – especially increased investment into K-5-plus programs and more money for teachers and principals – sans the charter cap.

The bill aims to remedy some findings of a landmark education lawsuit that concluded New Mexico is violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a sufficient education. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, stressed this is one of several bills being introduced to address the court ruling.

Citing the judge’s findings and $1.1 billion in “new” money for the coming budget year, Stewart said nearly half a billion dollars is expected to be pumped into education alone – one of the reasons she says the cap is necessary.

She argued that charters have received 55 percent of new money put into education for the past nine years, noting that charters educate about 8 percent of students in New Mexico.

“We can’t put nearly $500 million into education and have it be so lopsided toward charters,” she said.

She said that the cap would “right-size” the funding and that it would still allow for a growth of an estimated 1,000 students.

But JoAnn Mitchell, who spoke at the Senate Education Committee meeting Monday morning, said her school, Mission Achievement and Success Charter School in Albuquerque, has a waiting list of 1,000 kids. If the bill were to pass in its current form, MAS’ waiting list would theoretically fulfill the entire enrollment growth allowed for the state, Mitchell pointed out.

The school, which serves mostly low-income students and families, is one of the highest-performing in the state.

Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, who is a member of MAS’ governing board, echoed Mitchell’s opposition to the cap, saying it would be an “assault” on charter schools.

But he did tip his hat to the other functions of the bill.

“I could enthusiastically support this bill if the anti-charter portions weren’t in there,” he said.

O’Neill’s reaction was similar to other senators’ stances, with an overall air of support but pushback on the charter cap.

For instance, Sen. Candace Gould, R-Albuquerque, said she had her concerns about limiting charter enrollment, saying she doesn’t want to see students, especially those who have faced trauma, have limited options to schools they find effective.

Stewart, however, said the enrollment cap would be in place for just one year.

“Everyone should calm down,” she said in response to the opposition.

She also said no current charter school students would be affected.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, indicated he didn’t fully support a charter cap, either, but was open to the idea because it would be in place for only a year.

Others questioned how a charter enrollment cap would satisfy the court.

Matt Pahl, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, said more than half of charter students are at-risk, arguing that a cap would work against the students the lawsuit addressed.

In addition to charter school principals and staff, Patricia Gipson – chairwoman of the authorizer of state charter schools, the Public Education Commission – said the commission has “grave concerns” over the cap.

But Stewart told the committee an enrollment cap is an alternative to a charter school moratorium, which would bar any more schools from opening – an option being discussed in the House and by the governor.

In addition to a charter enrollment limit, Senate Bill 1 would increase the amount of money for at-risk student resources, replace K-3-plus initiatives with K-5-plus programs and create funding sources for extended learning time programs that would add extra instructional days, professional development days and after-school programs to the school year.

The bill, also sponsored by Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, and Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, would also increase salaries for teachers, some counselors and principals.

The bill would raise base salaries for Level 1, 2 and 3 teachers from $36,000 to $40,000, $44,000 to $50,000 and from $54,000 to $60,000, respectively.

The measure also calls for higher salaries for teachers in the proposed extended learning and K-5-plus programs.

But Gail Evans, a lawyer at New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty who worked on the education lawsuit, insisted Senate Bill 1 would not bring the state into compliance with the state Constitution.

She said the roughly $113 million set aside for at-risk programs was a “minimal” amount of money to address all the needs in the lawsuit findings.

She also said the salary increases weren’t enough to make New Mexico competitive with other states.

The bill’s estimated impact is between $289.9 million and $423.5 million for the budget year that starts in July.

Senate Education Committee members postponed further discussion and decision on the bill until Wednesday.

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