Education Secretary Hanna Skandera has been a champion of charter schools, but some lawmakers aren’t so sure. This session they proposed several reforms to New Mexico’s charter school system, which continues to be plagued by a lack of clarity and transparency at the state level.
In a history class at Explore Academy charter school in Albuquerque, seniors like Konner Robison are debating whether the U.S. should pull troops out of the Middle East.
Robison says they’re spending a month on just a couple conflicts that a traditional public school might gloss over in a day or two.
This kind of academic freedom is a major selling point of charter schools, which are publicly funded schools run by private organizations.
New Mexico’s charter school system is different from many other states in two major ways. For one, it’s illegal for for-profit companies to run charter schools here. And while national organizations run big chains of schools elsewhere, the vast majority of New Mexico’s charter schools are run locally, either as independent schools or part of small local networks.
Justin Baiardo founded the independent charter Explore Academy three years ago. He says he hopes the state is fair in the way it measures his school’s progress and holds them accountable.
“Familiarity would help, so they would know how our program is different when they come to visit," says Baiardo. "And then the other arm of that is support. If we have questions, we want to know that we can go to them and feel like we’re supported and embraced for reaching out and trying to better ourselves and our processes.”
While forty percent of New Mexico's charter schools are overseen by their local school districts, Explore is among the sixty percent that report to the state Public Education Commission, which is an elected board of volunteers.
Here’s where things gets complicated. When this Commission was given its chartering authority in 1999, it wasn’t given a budget to hire its own attorney or staff. So the leg work, of visiting schools and checking out their progress, is done by PED's Charter School Division staff, who report to Secretary Hanna Skandera, not to the Commission.
“In this one regard, NM has a completely unique arrangement that no other state has," says Greg Richmond, President of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). The organization reported last year that this charter system staffing situation contributes to a "failed authorizing structure."
"There have been a number of incidents, of cases of either new proposals, or schools coming up for renewal, where there has been a pretty significant disconnect between the Commission and the Secretary," says Richmond. "It creates this confusion as to who’s really in charge, who’s managing and administering all this?
Richmond says the overlap in powers needs to be resolved, though NACSA does not hold an opinion about which entity - the Commission or the PED - should get the final say. PED has strong ties to NACSA; Secretary Hanna Skandera is currently on NACSA's board.
In response to NACSA's evaluation, Chairwoman Patricia Gipson said the only thing she would change is giving the Commission a budget to hire an attorney. Without its own attorney, she said, the Commission cannot send official correspondence to schools without going through PED. By the same token, if a school disagrees with the Commission's decision and appeals to the Secretary, the Commission will likely lose that appeal without legal representation.
But Gipson says while the Commission and PED don't always agree on which schools to keep open, she appreciates PED’s technical support and its recommendation in each case.
"Because that’s purely what it is. It is a recommendation," says Gipson. "And it’s up to the Commission to determine, after we bring the schools before us for fairly lengthy conversations, when we’re dealing with either applications, or renewals, certainly with revocations."
The Commission has given PED their blessing in recent years to make that process overall more rigorous, said Commissioner Karyl Ann Armbruster, who said she believes PED and the Commission now have a "strong, positive working relationship."
But Commissioner Carmie Toulouse of Albuquerque says the working relationship between the Commission and PED went downhill after the PED hired a new charter school director two years ago.
“[The staff] come to a meeting, they introduce themselves, they sit there, but they generally do not answer questions, and one-on-one we don’t have contact with them," says Toulouse. "So it makes it hard.”
Toulouse says PED's Charter School Division has also been perpetually understaffed, but not due to a lack of funding. By state law, charter schools pay two percent of their program cost back to their authorizers. A legislative report this year notes it is unclear how the PED spends all of those funds.
Last spring, about a third of state-authorized charter schools signed onto a letter claiming the new CSD director, Katie Poulos, was overstepping her authority and treating them with hostility. Poulos did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Commissioner Toulouse is concerned that PED favors schools with for-profit connections, such as virtual schools with close ties to the education company K-12.
“There are some schools that have obstructions placed in their way and have hoops to jump through," says Toulouse, "that others do not.”
These issues of charter school governance in New Mexico are not new. NACSA says it noted the structural conflicts as far back as 2008, and the state auditor's office raised concerns over PED's charter school oversight in 2012 and again in 2014.
It's not surprising that managing a charter school system is difficult; dozens of schools with wildly different education models are never going to fit neatly into one accountability box. I tried to ask PED if New Mexico is making it harder than it has to be, but spokespeople for Secretary Skandera did not return multiple requests for comment.
Two lawmakers this session proposed ways to address the conflicts in the state's chartering governance structure. A democratic Senator proposed giving the Commission its own small budget, and a Republican representative wanted to take away the Commission’s chartering authority and give that power to PED. Both of those bills stalled in committees.
The People, Power and Democracy project examines ethics, transparency and accountability in state government. The project is funded by the Thornburg Foundation and by contributions from KUNM listeners.