June 10, 2016

Charter schools accuse PED of hostility, favoritism

More than two dozen charter schools across the state accused the Public Education Department of directing “a general atmosphere of hostility” toward several state-authorized charter schools.

classroomLast month, the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools wrote a list of 20 detailed complaints against the PED’s Charter Schools Division coming from 29 charter schools across the state in a letter to the Public Education Commission, an elected statewide body that oversees state-authorized charter schools.

“In a nutshell,” the letter reads, “The relationship between [the Charter Schools Division] and charter schools appears to have deteriorated significantly over the past year, and in numerous cases appears to be broken.”

Twenty charter schools signed onto the letter, though the Coalition says nine more have lodged complaints but didn’t want to go public “for fear of reprisal” from the PED.

The list of complaints, which accuse PED of imposing burdensome regulations against charter schools, pits nearly one-third of the charter schools in the state against a state agency that has touted itself as favorable to nontraditional public education. The Coalition wrote the letter at the request of the Public Education Commission after first mentioning the problems at a March commission meeting.

“Charter autonomy and innovation—the hallmarks of charter schools in New Mexico—are being seriously challenged and in several instances curtailed by the current [Charter Schools Division’s] emphasis on arbitrary oversight practices and compliance with [Charter School Division] dictates,” the letter reads.

Specifically, the Coalition accuses PED’s Charter Schools Division Director Katie Poulos of using an “arrogant and controlling attitude” to micromanage charter schools and overstep her authority “rather than evaluating outcomes and looking for ways to assist charters.”

Poulos’ office directed questions from NM Political Report for this story to PED spokesman Robert McEntyre, who did not respond to emails, text messages and phone calls Thursday seeking comment.

McEntyre has generally not responded to requests for comment from NM Political Report, which is a pattern among the highly-paid spokespeople of the Susana Martinez administration.

Kelly Callahan, the Coalition’s executive director, said the allegations in the letter speak for themselves. As a result, Callahan said that the Coalition will meet with PED’s Charter Schools Division to discuss the issues in the coming weeks.

“In the last several weeks, we all decided the best thing to do is be proactive and meet,” Callahan said.

The Coalition’s letter asks the Public Education Commission to “assist in restoring the good accord and mutual trust the previously existed between the schools” and PED. It argues that per state law, PED’s Charter Schools Division is supposed to serve as staff for the Public Education Commission and has been overstepping its authority.

Allegations of favoritism

Poulos “unilaterally” overrules “longstanding interpretations of law, regulations, charter contracts, policies and procedure without regard to what has occurred in the past,” according to the Coalition’s letter.

Examples include allegations that Poulos doesn’t allow charter school staff to talk to PED staff without going through her first, that her division doesn’t do follow-up site visits or exit interviews at charter schools PED criticizes and that her division presents negative school reports to the Public Education Commission without “opportunity for the schools to review, respond and/or rebut the information contained in the report.”

The Coalition’s letter says Poulos periodically makes unannounced visits to schools demanding “extensive documentation on the spot.” One allegation says she forced a charter school write up 18 different reports of its goals in less than one week.

Another complaint accuses Poulos of playing favorites by single-handedly deeming some schools “high performing” and others “low performing” without clear benchmarks. High performing schools aren’t required to submit academic performance data to PED, according to the letter.

The letter also takes Poulos to task for placing some charter schools on performance action plans without approval from the Public Education Commission, which the Coalition argues violates state law.

Poulos also allegedly made “negative comments” about certain charter schools to “potential school facility investors” to dissuade fundraising for certain charter schools.

“My job is to close underperforming charter schools,” the letter alleges Poulos said publicly.

Carmie Toulouse, a Public Education Commissioner from Albuquerque, said the tension between charter schools and the state stem from PED only favoring charter schools that are run in “a certain way”—i.e. for a profit.

“There is an order above, from the top of PED, to get rid of many of these schools so they can bring in new ones for profit,” Toulouse said.

While many charter schools around the country are run for a profit, Toulouse explained that New Mexico’s charter school law was set up to only allow nonprofit entities to manage public charter schools.

But for-profit companies like Virginia-based K12 Inc., which supports the New Mexico Virtual Academy online charter school in Farmington, and Baltimore-based Connections Academy, which is behind New Mexico Connections Academy online charter school in Santa Fe, have so far been able to get around the statute.

In 2012, the Public Education Commission rejected approval of New Mexico Connections Academy, only to be rebuffed by PED Secretary Hanna Skandera, who has the power to override commission decisions on charter schools.

Two years later, then-Attorney General Gary King issued a non-binding opinion stating that K12 Inc.’s contract with New Mexico Virtual Academy violated state law that bars charter school from being managed by for-profit entities. At the time, K12 Inc. argued that the school’s board of directors actually managed the charter school.

Poulos came to PED in April of last year after serving as director of academic affairs for accountability at the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. Among the accomplishments Poulos lists in her LinkedIn account from her time in Arizona are negotiating “charter surrenders, school closures, and changes to existing charters with the operators of underperforming charters and charter schools.”

The Coalition’s letter says staff in PED’s Charter Schools Division has turned over since Poulos came over “for reasons unknown but suspected to be related to the types of conduct in this letter.”

PED itself also underwent a shakeup in its top-level staff earlier this year.

Read the Coalition’s full letter below:

NMCCS Charter School Complaint Letter by New Mexico Political Report