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PED head should embrace, ensure choice

Despite overwhelming popularity among New Mexican families and students, New Mexico’s public charter schools have been under attack for much of the past decade. This fall, 27,000 students are attending public charter schools across the state, and thousands more have applied to schools that don’t have room, creating waiting lists.

Increasing charter school enrollment only underscores what we already know: the vast majority of taxpayers support more school choice, not less. In fact, a survey conducted by Research and Polling last January found that 70% of parents in Bernalillo County support the state in developing more charter schools.

Yet our students, families and educators have often been treated like second-class citizens. There is a small group of people that wants public charter schools to receive less funding despite the Yazzie/Martinez ruling. There is another small group that wants to prevent high-performing schools from growing and to stop high-potential schools from opening. The past five years have been marked with increased charter school accountability; due to closure, there are fewer schools now than there were in 2015. But that accountability wasn’t met with an increased ability for schools to expand. Through their quality, public charter schools in New Mexico have earned their right to serve our students, and they should be defended against harmful attacks.

Thankfully, our new Public Education Department Secretary-designate Ryan Stewart arrives with experience inside robust charter school communities on both coasts. He already visited a charter school founded by one of his deputies. He’s a fellow Teach For America alum, a fellow innovator, and a school choice parent. Leading Democrats have praised his outsider experience and the “fresh eyes” that he brings. We need “fresh eyes” on the powerful work happening across our 97 charter schools, and fresh perspective in honoring the rights of our families who are looking to enroll in our schools.

(Stewart) arrives at a time of great uncertainty. The attacks continue to mount against charter schools. From restricting student enrollment statewide to taking away facility funding for bathrooms, the attacks on public charter schools are relentless and have reached new creative heights. The attacks don’t respect the fact that charter schools are public schools and that families and students increasingly want to attend them.

Stewart can bring about a new day – but it starts with taking these three actions:

First, he should uphold the principle that families deserve to attend the school that is best for their child. He should close the door on any policy limiting growth or halting new campuses from closing achievement gaps. No moratoriums, no caps, less red tape. A strong public stance would restore trust with our educators. While we know Stewart shares these values in his heart, it must be matched with public leadership from his powerful seat.

Second, he should fight for equitable funding for all of New Mexico’s students, notably as it pertains to facilities. He will be astonished by vast disparities in the funding available for quality facilities. Our educational leaders are incredibly resourceful, but they’re often forced to lease second-rate buildings. Despite this, our schools still thrive; Mark Armijo Academy, Coral Community Charter and Albuquerque Collegiate are notable examples. But this is a fight for educational equity for all kids – and he should lead it.

Third, he should visit and highlight charter school best practices. Hubs of innovation, our schools are transforming education as community schools via personalized learning models in STEM, in bilingual education, in the performing arts, in career training, in child well-being, in restorative justice and in early literacy. New Mexico’s public charter schools have been homegrown with love and have open doors. They are cutting-edge, doing their work without fanfare for quite some time. He can spotlight their contributions and foster greater innovation.

I worked in the legislative and executive branches and don’t envy the responsibilities of his office. We’re here to help. Taking a stand on these issues is not just the right thing to do – it bolsters the administration’s watchwords of “reciprocal accountability and support” to be lived out through actions. Our students are waiting to be treated with equity and dignity at all times. These three actions are the first on our shared road to greater trust and moonshot progress.

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