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Skandera OK’s Virtual School

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — State education chief Hanna Skandera overruled the Public Education Commission this week, opting to allow a new all-online charter school to open in the fall.

The school proposal was submitted by Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation. But Gessing emphasized that the school is not a project of the foundation, which advocates for free markets and limited government.

The school will be called New Mexico Connections Academy and will contract with the online, for-profit curriculum company Connections Academy. The school will serve students in grades K-12 from around the state. Its application says it will start out with 500 students and grow to 2,000 by the fifth year.

Skandera’s decision Wednesday came as a national nonprofit, In the Public Interest, released thousands of emails between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s education foundation and policymakers in several states, including New Mexico. Connections Academy is one of several online education companies that donates money to Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization Skandera turns to for advice on reform initiatives.

Public Education Department spokesman Larry Behrens said Skandera approved the charter on its merits.

“The promise of virtual learning has the potential to offer fantastic options for thousands of New Mexican students. For those students who are best served by this option, virtual learning can offer instruction they might otherwise go without while serving to better prepare them for the 21st century,” Behrens said in a written statement.

The Public Education Commission was conservative with its approval of new charters last year, approving one new charter out of nine applications. The 10 members of that commission are elected by regional districts.

The emails released Wednesday show Bush’s foundation has given information and expertise to state leaders who back a certain set of reforms, including A-F grades for schools, retention of third-graders whose test scores show they can’t read at grade level and increased support for virtual schooling.

Included in the emails are exchanges between Skandera and Mary Laura Bragg, Foundation for Excellence in Education’s policy director of state implementation. In one exchange from 2011, Skandera asks whether Bragg would advise on a literacy initiative, and Bragg writes back, “I’m at your beck and call.” The emails also show Skandera seeking advice from Christy Hovanetz, a senior policy fellow at the foundation, about the language of proposed education reform bills.

Martinez has not been shy about the fact that many of her reforms – such as her third-grade retention proposal and A-F grades for schools – are patterned after Florida’s. She campaigned on the “Florida model” in 2010, and tapped Skandera – who worked under Bush – as her education chief.

Gessing and his foundation have also been strong proponents of Florida-style reforms. Critics of the reform package argue that although Florida has seen some marked test score improvements, those occurred after Florida lowered its legal class size maximums and spent millions of dollars on new reading coaches and teacher training.

Max Bartlett, who heads Albuquerque Interfaith’s education committee, said he is disappointed with Skandera’s decision.

“Virtual learning should be used to supplement, not replace, our public schools,” he said. “We particularly don’t want to see our public schools being privatized where we have out-of-state, for-profit corporations that are essentially undermining our public schools.”

Gessing said it is only natural for the companies that produce online curriculum to support policies and policymakers that favor virtual schools. He said it shouldn’t matter whether schools are run by the private or the public sector, as long as parents and students have good educational choices.

“What we’re ultimately going to be judged by is, first and foremost, whether there’s demand for this … and probably more importantly, is how the kids react and how they do.”

Gessing said that, in the future, the school will always have the option to use a different online contractor if desired by the governing board.

New Mexico has one other fully online charter school, called the New Mexico Virtual Academy. That school contracts with K-12 Inc., another for-profit online learning company that contributes to the Foundation for Excellence in Education. That charter application was originally rejected by the PEC, and instead chartered through the Farmington school board. It draws students from all over New Mexico.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal