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APS: Put Brakes on New Charters

By Hailey Heinz
Journal Staff Writer
       Albuquerque Public Schools wants lawmakers to place a moratorium on new charter schools until existing schools are fully funded.
    The request is one of the items on the district's legislative wish list, and it aims to help APS deal with a budget crunch.
    "We need to stop putting in place new programs or schools that take away from the pie of money," APS lobbyist Joseph Escobedo said.
    The school board approved the list of legislative priorities Wednesday.
    The January legislative session will focus on financial concerns, with the state facing a budget shortfall of at least $500 million. During a special legislative session in October, lawmakers carved $650 million from the current budget.
    Escobedo said his first priority will be to avoid more budget cuts for the district, which suffered an $11.6 million blow during the special session. He said part of the focus will be on developing a plan to replace federal stimulus funds now being used to backfill education cuts.
    Lisa Grover, who heads the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, said charters oppose a moratorium. Albuquerque has 43 charter schools.
    "Three-quarters of the charters in Albuquerque have a waiting list," Grover said. "As long as there is a need and parents are choosing charter schools, we need more good, quality charter schools."
    Grover also said stopping the growth of new charter schools would hurt New Mexico's chances of getting federal Race to the Top funding.
    Race to the Top is a pot of stimulus money that states will compete for in the coming year. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been clear that states will have to foster the growth of charter schools to be competitive.
    State Secretary of Education Veronica Garcia agreed that a moratorium might hurt the state's Race to the Top chances, and said the Public Education Department probably would not support the APS proposal.
    "What I have heard from the administration at the federal level is that charter schools are thought of as a very important reform initiative and a very important piece, in fact the main piece, in public school choice," Garcia said. "I would hate for us to hamper our efforts for Race to the Top and jeopardize a minimum of $75 million to help us reform and improve our schools."
    Several other APS priorities for the session deal with charter schools. One would prevent charter school employees or board members from serving on public school boards. Another would include charters as part of the APS capital master plan to help the district with long-term planning. Now, the charters get separate per-student money from the state.
    A third proposal would distance the APS audit process from charter audits, so the district would not be penalized for late or qualified audits from charters.
    Grover said the coalition would have to look at the specific wording of such proposals before taking a position.
    Although Escobedo said the district's emphasis will be on funding, the APS agenda covers a range of topics. Other proposals would:
    n Allow the district to recover more money from students who destroy school property.
    n Increase the amount of time middle and high school teachers have for student-led conferences each year.
    n Oppose the creation of a new West Side district.
    n Support more flexible enrollment for students from military families.
    Escobedo said he plans to push for these initiatives even though the session will focus on budget matters. "We have to be the leaders in education, and we have to keeping pushing these policy initiatives, at least for thought and discussion of how we can get better."

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