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Report: New Mexico charter schools cost more, perform same

SANTA FE, N.M. — Rapidly expanding charter schools in New Mexico are spending more per student with similar academic results to traditional public schools, state program analysts told lawmakers on Monday.

The evaluation by staff at New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee warned that charter schools are diluting the amount of funds available at all schools, as charter schools continue to be authorized independently of the state’s budget process.

The study found that charter school students received $8,663 per student, while traditional district schools received $7,597, during the budget year ending June 2015. New Mexico’s charter schools have received nearly half of school funding increases since mid-2007, while serving about 7 percent of all students, the report said.

Presenting the findings to lawmakers, program evaluator Yann Lussiez said state-authorized charter schools with the highest grades tended to have the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students.

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The study looked specifically at six charter schools with divergent educational approaches and structures. The presentation touched off a discussion among legislators about governance and accountability at charter schools that do not have publicly elected boards.

Representatives from the New Mexico Department of Education agreed with the findings about academic results but insisted charter schools can better engage students and provide special opportunities.

Matthew Pahl, policy director for the department, said greater administrative oversight is planned.

“We’re working at hiring an auditor that just looks at charter schools right now in recognition the fact that there should probably be some more oversight,” he said.

The Legislative Finance Committee agreed to sponsor legislation that would prevent double funding of certain students at charter schools under a formula that recognizes rapid enrollment increases. The committee also supports a bill to avoid overfunding of transportation at charter schools.

Charter school directors said they have not received enough recognition for the various ways they address the special needs of their students.

New Mexico had 97 charter schools serving about 22,000 students last year, up from 59 in 2010 and just two in 2000. That steady growth mimics the growth of nationwide attendance at charter schools, which surpasses 2.5 million students.

The state evaluation raised specific concerns about costs and performance at so-called virtual charter schools that provide remote online courses. New Mexico has two virtual schools — New Mexico Connections Academy and New Mexico Virtual Academy — that both have ties to for-profit organizations.

The virtual schools have an average of 41 students per teacher with much greater demands on middle and high school teachers, and did not provide expected saving on infrastructure costs. The evaluation recommended the creation of new statutory requirements for funding and student achievement at virtual schools.

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