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Bill bans firms from running public schools

SANTA FE, N.M. — Democrats and advocates unveiled a bill Tuesday that would prevent private companies from managing or administering public schools.

The bill takes particular aim at fully online schools like the New Mexico Virtual Academy, chartered by the Farmington school board and run primarily by the for-profit K-12 Inc.

Proponents of fully online schooling said these schools should be given a chance to work, and that the staff of companies like K-12 Inc. are the only ones with the expertise to administer online schools.

Max Bartlett, an advocate who has vocally opposed such online schools, spoke at a news conference Tuesday.

“We’re very concerned about this move toward privatization, for two fundamental reasons. We think it’s bad for students, and we think it’s bad for our communities,” Bartlett said. He chairs the education committee of Albuquerque Interfaith, an advocacy group.

Bartlett said online schools don’t teach students how to work in teams or discuss ideas. Bartlett and others also said tax dollars should not flow to out-of-state corporations.

Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring the bill, raised similar concerns. HB 460 is sponsored by Stewart in the House, with support from Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, in the Senate.

Stewart also raised concerns about state Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera’s links to online schooling companies. Skandera belongs to Chiefs for Change, a group of education leaders who embrace the reform ideas of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education favors online schools and has received funds from K-12 Inc. and Connections Academy.

Stewart said this is a conflict of interest. Skandera recently overturned the state Public Education Commission’s decision to reject an application for a second fully online school, which will contract with Connections Academy.

Public Education Department spokesman Larry Behrens was dismissive of the bill.

“It’s terribly unfortunate some members of the Legislature want to make sure our children and their parents do not have access to a good education,” Behrens said in a written statement. “It may be easy for some in Albuquerque to discount the opportunity virtual learning brings. However, we believe students, particularly in rural areas, should have more options.”

The school Skandera approved last month was proposed by Paul Gessing. Gessing heads the Rio Grande Foundation, which advocates for limited government, but he emphasized the school is not a foundation project.

Gessing said companies like textbook publishers have always had a role in education.

“The private sector has always been involved in education,” he said. “This is certainly maybe a step toward some additional reliance on the private sector, and people who are philosophically opposed to the private sector or really don’t like free markets are probably not going to like anything that increases the involvement of the private sector.”

Larry Palmer, president of the governing council of the Farmington-based virtual school, said the bill would “kill” online schools because private vendors are currently the only people with the expertise to run such schools.
— This article appeared on page A3 of the Albuquerque Journal

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