Private organizations and corporations running virtual charter schools in New Mexico are preparing a Trojan horse-type assault on the state to divert public education funds, according to a group of lawmakers, private citizens and faith-based leaders who are trying to stop them.
Rep. Mimi Stewart and Sen. Linda Lopez, both Albuquerque Democrats, joined the Rev. Trey Hammond of Albuquerque Interfaith, a faith-based community organizing effort, as well as a coalition of parents, students and public-school supporters, at a news conference Tuesday to announce the introduction of House Bill 460.
The bill clarifies that the Public Education Department, as well as school districts and charter schools, cannot contract with private entities to run a public school or any of its programs.
Hammond charged that private educational institutions are finding ways to break through the system in a "Trojan horse" manner. "This bill says no more privatization Trojan horses in New Mexico," he said.
Although state law says a charter school can't contract with a for-profit entity to manage the school, Stewart said private organizations such as the Web-based K12 Academy and Connections Academy, both of which have a presence in New Mexico, have learned how to take advantage of loopholes in the law.
There are now two virtual charters in New Mexico, including one in development.
In August, the New Mexico Virtual Academy, a statewide public charter school authorized by the Farmington Municipal School District, began offering courses to 500 students from around New Mexico. Most of the students are from Albuquerque, however. Although he didn't know how many students from Albuquerque Public Schools were enrolled there, John Miller, public information officer for APS, noted Tuesday that "the funding goes with them."
And late last month, Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera overruled the Public Education Commission and approved the charter application for New Mexico Connections Academy. The commission, the state's chartering authority, argued that the school's mission is not in the best interest of students and that distance-learning online centers are no substitute for personal instruction in the classroom.
Larry Behrens, spokesman for the Public Education Department, said via email Tuesday that, "It's terribly unfortunate that some members of the Legislature want to make sure our children and their parents do not have access to a good education. It may be easy for some in Albuquerque to discount the opportunity virtual learning brings, however we believe students, particularly in rural areas, should have more options."
But Hammond said virtual schools "do not establish the community within a community that schools provide" or help students learn to think creatively or socially interact with others.
Stewart also raised concern about other forms of privatization, including the Public Education Department's decision to invest $2 million in out-of-state professional development services for teachers to learn about the incoming Common Core Standards and a $2.5 million contract with the nonprofit University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program to provide professional development for principals and educational leaders to help them close the achievement gap.
"Do we want corporations from Virginia setting up shop in New Mexico. ... What does Virginia know about our New Mexico students? What does Connections Academy know about our New Mexico students?" Stewart said.
Stewart and Hammond said they are not against online learning of select courses within a bricks-and-mortar setting -- or opposed to new charter schools.
HB 460 makes it clear that New Mexico charters must be run by a governing board of at least five members -- "all of whom are residents of New Mexico." It gives charters the right to contract with school districts, colleges, the state, the federal government, a tribal government and "allowable" third parties to acquire a space and maintain it, but not for management or administration of the educational program.
Stewart said it is too early to gauge whether the bill will have bipartisan support. The House Education Committee has some 175 bills to consider, so it might be a while before it is heard.
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