ALBUQUERQUE — Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart is trying to reassure charter school operators who are worried support for their schools is waning from both the legislative and executive branches.
At a conference in Albuquerque earlier this week, Stewart — in his first months on the job — said he wants charter schools to be incubators of innovation and believes their ideas can be spread to all the state’s K-12 schools.
“I don’t think this is something we’ve gotten right yet — we’ve created a lot of really great schools, but we haven’t yet organized a system around taking innovation that’s happening and making sure its not just living within the walls of any one particular institution,” Stewart said. “That requires being organized an ready to drive and scale up important innovations.”
Stewart spoke before a few hundred people a charter school symposium hosted by the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools, a nationwide organization. About 26,000 students — between 7 percent and 8 percent of the state’s public school population of 330,000 children — attend charters, according to nonprofit Public Charter Schools of New Mexico.
In light of the Yazzie-Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit decision, in which a judge ruled the state is denying special education, Native American, English-language learner and poor students their constitutional right to an education, Stewart praised charter schools for flexibility in meeting the needs of their specific communities.
But while the state increased funding for K-12 education by about $480 million this fiscal year in response to Yazzie-Martinez, charter school leaders said at the symposium they’re as concerned as ever about their futures. They cite uncertainty over the state’s funding formula for lease reimbursements and the phaseout of the small-school size adjustment, which previously provided extra funding to elementary and middle schools with fewer than 200 students and high schools with fewer than 400.
Now the adjustment applies only in school districts with fewer than 2,000 students, which alarms charter school advocates in New Mexico’s most populous cities.
“We went from being completely viable to not so sure we’re going to open our doors next year. I’m hearing you say that you’re supporting the work of charters — however we are in such dire straits right now, I really think the state might be losing one of its most valuable resources,” Sandy Roth, co-director of Albuquerque Charter Academy, said during a panel discussion that included Public Education Department Deputy Secretary Kara Bobroff, a former charter school operator, and Director of Language and Culture Mayra Valtierrez, as well as Gail Evans, lead counsel for the Yazzie plaintiffs.
“We’ve been legislatively attacked constantly since the beginning of this administration,” Roth said. “How is it that at the same time the state is telling us they’re supporting changes behind Yazzie-Martinez, the Legislature is making cuts at schools already trying to make those changes?”
In defense of the Public Education Department, Bobroff said funding formulas for charter and small schools is up to the Legislature.
“As far as the legislative process, that’s really up to our legislators to think about the policies that they’re passing,” Bobroff said. “We get whatever funding and whatever policy comes out of the session.”
Evans added that shifting funding away from charter schools was not part of the ruling in Yazzie-Martinez.
“There’s nothing in the lawsuit that talks about whether charters should have more or less money,” Evans said. “The lawsuit talks about at-risk students being served, and what we really need is some state leadership in developing a plan for how they will come into compliance.”
Stewart said he hopes New Mexico can be the first state in the country to solve collaboration between traditional public and charter schools.
“What’s unfortunate is education, and charter schools especially, have become politicized,” said Susan Lumley, principal of Academy for Technology and the Classics, a high-performing charter in the Santa Fe Public Schools.
“Everybody loses when that happens because we should to be focusing on what is working to advance social justice.”