February 22, 2017

Sweeping charter school reform bill stalls in House committee

Democrats on the House Education Committee effectively killed an expansive charter school reform bill after two hours of testimony Wednesday, arguing that it was too complex and contained provisions that many charter school advocates oppose.

“It’s more dead than less [dead],” Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the bill, said after the committee’s 7-6 vote along party lines to table House Bill 273.

The bill would have called for “automatic closure” of low-performing charter schools. It also removed a cap on the number of charter schools that could open in any given year, gave high-performing charter schools the ability to streamline their renewal process and would have cut charter school funding by 25 percent over the course of several years.

Ivey-Soto and fellow co-sponsor Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, told the committee the measure would save money for the state and hold charter schools more accountable.

But Democrats on the committee said they were confused by the many substitute versions of the bill — at least six — the lack of a full analysis of its potential fiscal effects, and the fact that even supporters of the bill want the sponsors to remove the clause on shutting down poorly performing schools.

Opponents of the measure argued that removing the current cap of 15 new charter schools per year would be fiscally irresponsible, given the state’s financial problems.

“We can’t adequately fund our public schools now,” said Meredith Machen, president of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico. Machen has pushed for a moratorium on charter schools in New Mexico.

“Do we want, theoretically, 50 new charter schools coming on next year?” asked Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan. Though, he voted against tabling the bill.

The committee’s discussion comes amid a statewide and national debate on charter schools, which use public funding but maintain more autonomy than traditional public schools and operate under their own governing boards.

Proponents of charter schools argue that they offer parents and students more choice. But critics cite national studies showing that charter school students generally don’t academically outperform children in other public schools and complain that they draw much-needed funding away from traditional schools.

New Mexico has about 100 charter schools, some overseen by the state and others authorized by individual school districts.

Earlier this month, the State Auditor’s Office released an audit of the Public Education Department that criticized the department’s oversight of state-chartered schools, citing procurement code violations, a lack of background and licensure checks for educators, overspending and ineffective financial controls.

Several measures working their way through the Legislature would affect funding or other rules regarding charter schools throughout the state.

Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, has introduced a bill that would put a moratorium on new charter schools for at least two years and a half years.

Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera has countered that such a move is unrealistic and would limit options for those seeking an alternative public education.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.