New Mexico Targets Charter Schools for Budget Cuts

Published September 23, 2010

Funding for New Mexico’s 80 charter schools is under scrutiny by the state education department as state legislators weigh difficult budget cuts. Schools across the Cactus State are facing a 3 percent across-the-board reduction in funding for the 2011 fiscal year.

But charter schools could face greater restrictions if legislators adopt the recommendations of a Legislative Finance Committee report.

Based on the report’s recommendations, legislators are considering a freeze on new charters “until the application and renewal process has increased rigor, monitoring and oversight and charter schools are closed on the basis of performance.” Currently, 16 new charters are awaiting approval from one of the state’s two charter authorizers.

The legislature may also prohibit charter schools from obtaining funds under the state’s “small schools” program, and could consider imposing growth thresholds on existing charter schools.

The state education department also recommends lawmakers limit or cut lease-assistance funds to charter schools.

Charters’ Affordability Disputed

“We certainly have opponents to charter schools, and certainly this report is going to make those opponents happy,” said Lisa Grover of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools.

The New Mexico School Board Association opposes funding charter schools unless the money for traditional public schools stays the same even if students leave. The group has called for a moratorium on new charters.

“It doesn’t make sense to be funding two separate types of school systems,” said Joe Guillen, the association’s president. “The argument is that in good economic times it’s nice to have two homes or two cars, but when you can’t afford it, it doesn’t make sense. We should not continue an experiment that for the most part, has not worked.”
Says Students Need Choices

Ellen Moore, principal of Los Puentes Charter School in Albuquerque, says she has heard that argument before. “I understand the perception—there’s a limited amount of money and it has to get cut up so many ways,” said Moore.

“But it’d be a mistake to say ‘charters don’t work, send everybody back.’ Our school is a better match for young men and women transitioning from juvenile corrections or expulsion into our small charter designed to handle that population as opposed to sending them back to an Albuquerque public school with two thousand kids,” she said.

“In New Mexico there are close to 14,000 students in charter schools, and what that says to me is that for whatever reason a traditional public school did not work for them,” Moore said.

Definitions of Success

Guillen claims charter schools are not working in New Mexico.

“A quick review of the Adequate Yearly Performance results indicate that about 15 percent are doing better and the rest are doing the same or worse than public schools,” said Guillen. He agrees with the education department’s recommendations that the state put charters under increased oversight and shut down poor performers.

“The current standards are very general, and they need to be nailed down quite a bit,” Guillen said.

Moore agrees charter schools should be held accountable for maintaining rigorous standards, “but not necessarily based on test scores, because you have to look at their specific niche.

“My students’ test scores aren’t going to show their success,” she explained. “But my graduation rates and short-cycle assessments are going to show it.”

Limited Moratorium Supported

The proposed moratorium has some support from both sides.

“I think the authorizer should be scrutinizing the function of that charter school in the community,” said Moore. “For example, Taos has only 5,000 residents and four charter schools, and that seems like a lot.”

Current state law allows charters to benefit from the state’s “small schools” adjustment, which some charter opponents find especially irksome. Because New Mexico is predominantly rural, the state provides additional funding for schools with fewer than 500 students and small tax bases. The Legislative Finance Committee noted some charter schools receive as much as 45 percent of their funding through the small schools adjustment.
The committee report notes some ambiguity about whether charters should qualify for the adjustment, and it suggests the schools should be treated the same as magnet and alternative public schools, which do not qualify for the funds. Many charters exist in urban areas such as Albuquerque, for example.

“It’s like they’re taking full advantage of it,” Guillen complained.

Additional Funding Concerns

But charter backers say the adjustment is essential for keeping charter schools running in New Mexico.

“I’ve heard that as many as 80 percent of charters would close without the adjustment,” said Moore. The New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools says the number may be closer to 90 percent.

Moore said her school would struggle without the adjustment.

“We have to take security into account and keep the classes small, among other safeguards, because of the nature of the students,” she said. “Reducing the staff to just a principal and a couple teachers could result in a nightmare on your hands.”
Lease assistance grants are another crucial line item for small charter schools. The Legislative Finance Committee found the schools receive, on average, 26 percent more funding per student than traditional school districts. In a few isolated instances, the committee found some charter operators benefited financially from expensive lease agreements.

The Legislature is not expected to act on the report’s recommendations until January, when newly elected members are sworn in.

Rob Goszkowski ([email protected]) writes from San Francisco, California.