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Editorial: Why are NM lawmakers declaring war on charters?

As more parents vote with their children’s feet and enroll them in public charter schools, the pressure to remove that choice intensifies. Who knew so many legislators and teachers union reps agreed one size fits all in education?

New Mexico has 96 charter schools with more than 26,000 students. Many serve very specific segments of the population – the hearing impaired, the artistic, the science/math whizzes, the autistic, the bilingual, the adjudicated – because when our state established enabling legislation for charters, those leaders understood one size does not fit all students.

Yet, once again, the usual suspects in the Legislature – Sens. Mimi Stewart, Gay Kernan and Bill Soules, and Rep. Christine Trujillo (all have worked for traditional public schools, some have deep union ties) – are sponsoring legislation that takes that tailored, targeted learning away. And the reason why was as clear as the headlines on the front pages of Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s Journals: “Continued enrollment decline hits APS budget” and “Forty-two percent in survey gave APS a C.”

It is no coincidence that as Albuquerque Public Schools forecasts a 1,300-student drop in its traditional schools for fiscal ’20, successful charters, including Mission Achievement and Success and the Albuquerque Institute of Math and Science, have waiting lists at least that long. Or that 50 percent of those surveyed gave charters an A or B. Parents have seen the impressive gains in student reading and math proficiencies that quality charter schools deliver (which Stewart is trying to obfuscate by replacing A-F school grades with an unintelligible “dashboard” via her SB 229).

And so to protect the status quo, a quartet of anti-choice lawmakers (Reps. Karen Bash, Debra Sariñana, Joy Garratt and Elizabeth Thomson have joined Trujillo on the House side) has proposed a moratorium on new charter schools. And while the cap on enrollment was wisely amended out of SB 1, HB 434’s 2.5-year moratorium is headed to the House floor.

Trujillo introduces this bill regularly and says it won’t close existing schools. That ignores the reality thousands of children are on charter wait lists and a moratorium means they continue as square pegs trying to fit into round holes as each grade level flies by. It also puts $22.5 million in federal funding for opening high-quality public charter schools at risk, according to the bill’s fiscal impact report.

Despite its amendment, SB 1 still has major problems. The first is an age cap on students. Also in HB 5, this cap means students over the age of 22 would no longer be able to earn a high school diploma. That targets students whom the public schools have failed, vulnerable, at-risk students we are fortunate to have a chance to get back in class, whether at the jail or in residential treatment centers, studying to become productive members of society. Why would New Mexico pull the education rug out from under them? Whom does that benefit?

The sponsors say these older students are siphoning funding from traditional students, but here’s the thing: SB 1’s FIR says in 2017 there were just 766 students over age 22 in public schools, accounting for around $6 million in funding. Our state has around 300,000 K-12 students, spent $2.7 billion educating them this fiscal year and will boost that to more than $3 billion next fiscal year. Is New Mexico the kind of state that says “too bad, so sad” to students who didn’t graduate in the name of grabbing a fraction of school funding?

And then there’s SB 1/HB 5’s removal of the small school funding adjustment. The Legislative Finance Committee maintains that should be reserved for small rural districts. But doesn’t the student going to class in a strip mall in the South Valley deserve the same supports as one in Dexter?

Charters are small by design, and conventional wisdom as well as hard data support the small-school model. Charter leaders showed up in force Feb. 9 to beg the House Education Committee to not strip the funding, saying it would destroy their education model, even close them down. SB1’s FIR estimates the savings at $14 million, again a fraction of a $3 billion schools budget, but a fraction vital to 26,200 students.

And here’s the irony: the bills purportedly get the state in line with state District Judge Sarah Singleton’s ruling New Mexico needs to do more to adequately educate its students, particularly those at risk. Yet these bills limit, cripple and/or shutter charter schools that serve these students – more than half the charters serve an above-average number of free/reduced lunch students.

Instead they deny students schools of choice and push more of the 26,200 charter students into schools they fled.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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