Growth in New Mexico’s charter schools has been strong in recent years, so strong in fact that charter school proponents say the only thing holding them back is space.
While charters are public schools, unlike traditional schools they don’t have funds reserved for capital projects and don’t qualify for capital awards from the Public School Capital Outlay Fund (unless their facilities have fallen into a state of disrepair – a rarity, because most are leased facilities and the landlords require upkeep, and students and parents would vote with their feet).
Without the money to buy or build, their only real option is leasing facilities, often in strip malls, like the high-performing Albuquerque Collegiate Charter School does in the heart of the South Valley (79% proficiency rates in reading versus 34% in the state’s traditional public schools).
Senate Bill 318, introduced by state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, makes much-needed fundamental adjustments for charter schools, such as requiring school districts to let charter schools know about unused facilities and land that could be leased or purchased, expanding facilities eligible for capital outlay grants, and creating a charter facility fund to pay off lease-purchase agreements, starting with a $1 million infusion. And it includes oversight from the New Mexico Finance Authority.
Charter schools offer parents and students an option to traditional schools many are jumping at. They now serve 9.3% of the state’s student population. And in Albuquerque, where there are several nationally recognized charter schools, it’s even more pronounced, with over 19% of Albuquerque Public School students attending charter schools.
More than 10,000 New Mexico children are on waiting lists to attend one of the state’s 98 charter schools. At a pace of enrolling 500 to 800 more students a year, we’ll never get through those waiting lists and realize those students’ dreams.
Charter schools, with their smaller classrooms and targeted curricula, aren’t for everyone, but they are the school of choice for the 29,000 New Mexico students enrolled in them and the 10,000-plus who are waiting to get in.
SB 318, which recently passed the Senate Education Committee but has stalled awaiting a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee, would put charter schools on a more level playing field with their traditional counterparts.
For the sake of our students, the bill needs to move ahead, and quickly, with time running out in the legislative session. It’s a smart and efficient investment in our students, allowing high-performing schools such as Albuquerque Collegiate Charter School to reach beyond their current square footage so our children can reach their potential in the classroom.
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.