Maximize the Benefits of Charter Schools

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Issue Summary

Charter schools are public schools that are created by a contract, or charter, between a school’s founders and the state or local school district. Charter schools are exempt from many, though not all, of the rules and requirements that apply to traditional public schools.

There are 98 charter schools in New Mexico, constituting over 11% of all public schools and enrolling 29,217 students, about 9% of all public school students in the state. This level of enrollment makes charter schools the equivalent of the second largest school district in New Mexico.

Think New Mexico recommends four reforms that would maximize the benefits of charter schools for all students.

First, the current laws governing charter schools make it difficult to close charter schools that are underperforming academically. Only a handful of charter schools have ever been required to shut down in New Mexico, and most of those closures were for fiscal mismanagement, rather than academic failure. By contrast, 13 states have charter school laws that require the closure of schools that fail to perform academically for a certain number of years.

The legislature and governor should revise the state charter law to require the closure of charter schools that have failed for several years to meet their own performance standards or are performing significantly below traditional public schools with similar student demographics.

Second, New Mexico’s current charter law makes it very difficult to replicate successful charter schools. If a charter school seeks to locate a new campus in a different school district, it must apply for a whole new charter, just as if it were a brand new school, and it must recruit an entirely new governing board for each branch located in another district. This restriction has prevented excellent charter schools with long waiting lists from serving as many students as they could because the current law

The legislature and governor should allow academically successful charter schools to open multiple campuses in New Mexico under a single charter contract.

Third, New Mexico should also make it easier for charters to serve the students who would gain the most benefit from them. State law currently requires that charter schools must enroll students using a pure lottery system, in which all students are eligible to apply to attend and are selected by a random drawing.

The problem with this system is that it favors children whose parents have the knowledge, time, and fluency in English to successfully navigate the lottery application process. Fourteen states allow charters to give priority to disadvantaged populations of students.

The legislature and governor should reform the charter school law to allow charters to give enrollment preference to the sort of students who would benefit most from a specialized education, such as at-risk students, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Finally, if one key goal of charter schools is to create options for students who are underserved by the traditional public schools, then those students should have reasonable access to them regardless of where they live in New Mexico. However, because charter schools are located in places where their founders live (or want to live), they have ended up concentrated in a few New Mexico communities: 69% of charter schools in New Mexico are located in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces. (Albuquerque alone, with just about a quarter of the state’s population of students, is home to 54% of the state’s charter schools.)

The legislature and governor should streamline the application process to open new charter schools in school districts that currently lack them, especially those with significant populations of at-risk students.

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