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House members boost charter schools

WASHINGTON – New Mexico’s U.S. House members plan to vote for a rare, bipartisan education bill on the House floor today that would help create new charter schools across the country.

The bill would authorize $300 million per year from 2015 through 2020 and consolidate two existing federal programs. It would also encourage replication of existing high-quality charter schools and help pay for new buildings. Charter schools, which often boast higher student achievement than regular public schools, typically use taxpayer dollars but are run by outside organizations. Critics contend they siphon money from low-performing schools that need it most.

Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Luján, both New Mexico Democrats, told the Journal this week that they will work to ensure any federal charter school law contains mechanisms for “transparency and accountability.” Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., supports the bill.

Nearly 20,000 students in New Mexico – or roughly 6 percent of all public school students in the state – attend 94 charter schools. Twelve percent of Albuquerque Public Schools students are enrolled in charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“New Mexico has seen some positive results with charter schools, and I am hopeful that we can replicate that success and spur innovation throughout our public education system,” Lujan Grisham said. “At the same time, we must ensure that federal dollars are spent wisely and that charter schools are held to the same standards as other public schools.”

Luján said the bill contains a proposal he offered in the last Congress that calls for charter schools to establish plans for teacher training and mentoring in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Our nation’s competitiveness depends upon our ability to educate our students, and while charter schools can offer innovative educational programs, it is important that they are held to the same accountability and transparency standards as traditional public schools,” Luján said.

“Charter schools provide opportunities and school choices for thousands of New Mexico families,” Pearce said. “I fully support this legislation that helps communities and schools thrive and excel.”

While the House bill is widely expected to win passage today, a companion bill introduced in the Senate late Wednesday is expected to face a rockier path. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is chairman of the Senate education committee, has said he would rather focus on retooling and reauthorizing the entire No Child Left Behind Act than considering standalone charter school legislation.

Udall said he appreciates that charter schools are good for some families, but agreed with Harkin’s approach.

“He is evaluating the bill, but he prefers the Senate to thoughtfully consider and update No Child Left Behind to improve all schools, rather than focusing solely on charter schools in piecemeal legislation,” Udall spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm said.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said the senator “has been supportive” of charter school innovations but wants to talk to New Mexico students and teachers before taking a position on the Senate bill.