At a time when New Mexico charter schools are coming under increased scrutiny for both academic achievement and financial practices, dozens of charter school supporters showed up at the Roundhouse on Thursday to celebrate National School Choice Week.
More than 16,000 similar celebrations were held in 30 states around the country.
“Responsible decision-making is a hallmark of a democracy, and you can’t make an informed decision without school options,” Todd Knouse, director of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico International School, said at the rally. His school, which offers lessons in Spanish and Arabic and has a strong arts program, has earned an A in the state’s A-F school grading system. Its charter was just renewed for another five years, he said.
Knouse wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm for charters. Raphael Martinez, executive director of the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy — which has both hearing, hard-of-hearing and deaf students enrolled — said without a charter system, a school like his never would have opened. He believes the school, which has earned a B from the state, is the only one of its kind in the nation.
“Parents need options,” he said. “The days of cookie-cutter education are past. We no longer need to rely on just one way of delivering education. That’s what charter schools represent — choice.”
“Option” was a word bandied about repeatedly Thursday as the crowd of students, parents and teachers at the Roundhouse showed off their schools’ talents, from a performance of a sign-language musical number to flamenco dancing and linguistic skills.
State Public Education Hanna Skandera spoke briefly, saying charter schools remain a viable choice for parents and students looking for more opportunities to succeed.
New Mexico has about 100 charter schools, about 60 of which have been chartered by the state. The rest are chartered through individual school districts.
While some critics argue that the state has too many charter schools — or at least enough to cap further growth — Skandera said the question is not about the quantity but “the quality. When we don’t maintain high expectations and outcomes for kids, we should be shutting those charter schools down,” she said.
Various national studies indicate that charter schools, overall, do not necessarily show higher student achievement than traditional schools. And while some charters in the state have received national acclaim — U.S. News & World Reports has listed Santa Fe’s Academy for Technology and the Classics and Monte del Sol as among the best high schools in the state — others have come under fire for questionable financial practices.
In 2014, for example, FBI agents raided Albuquerque-based Southwest Secondary Learning Center and seized documents and computers. The action raised questions about misappropriation of funds at the school. Shortly thereafter, that school’s director resigned amid allegations that he had a conflict of interest because he personally profited from financial deals between the school and his own private company.
Just last week, the Legislative Finance Committee released a report stating that although New Mexico’s charter schools serve only 7 percent of the state’s public school students, they have received 46 percent of new public school funding over the past seven years. The Public Education Department said this is because student enrollment in charter schools increased by more than 100 percent in that time period, and that state school funding follows students.
In December, the League of Women Voters of New Mexico asked the Legislative Finance Committee to use its weight to help enact a ban on the creation of any new charter schools, arguing that they shortchange students in traditional schools.
Skandera said at the time that the request was unrealistic.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or [email protected].