LOS ALAMOS — Charter schools in New Mexico receive more funding per student than traditional public schools, in part because of unclear laws that give them an edge in squeezing out dollars from the state, a new study says.

The report by the Legislative Education Study Committee and Legislative Finance Committee says charter schools on average receive about 15 percent more funding per student than regular public schools. In Albuquerque, for example, traditional public schools receive about $7,400 for each student while that city’s charter schools get about $8,700 per student.

The reasons include statutory language that allows charter schools to take advantage of the state’s small-school funding formula — designed to give rural school districts adequate money to operate — and a law that lets charter schools begin new programs with funding that doesn’t require legislative approval.

State lawmakers heard the report Thursday at Los Alamos High School. Rachel Gudgel, director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, and Charles Sallee, deputy director of Legislative Finance Committee, presented it.

The report led one Democratic lawmaker to suggest restrictions because of the state’s financial problems.

“Given where the budget is right now, I would much prefer to see our first move to be to place a moratorium on any new charter schools,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque. “We continue to exacerbate that problem as we add new schools.”

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, said that approach won’t work.

“That would only prevent new charter schools from entering a flawed system full of loopholes. We need to close those loopholes first,” said Roch, superintendent of Logan Municipal Schools.

He suggested that legislators set an allowance for new charter schools and mandate that those schools live within that budget.

Patricia Gipson, vice chairwoman of the state Public Education Commission, which approves or denies state charter applications for new schools, said the impact of a moratorium might be minimal because growth of charter schools has slowed in the past year or two. She said the Public Education Commission only approved two new charter schools this year and only one of them opened.

Gov. Susana Martinez supports school choice, including charter schools. Public Education Department Secretary Hanna Skandera can and sometimes does overrule the Public Education Commission’s decisions regarding state charter applications.

Charter schools around the nation have come under more scrutiny lately as lawmakers demand more accountability in spending practices and increased academic achievement rates.

Earlier this year, for example, a state audit of 55 state-chartered schools in New Mexico found many of them deficient in internal financial controls and out of compliance with some provisions of state law. Some of those problems were minor and others have already been corrected.

In addition, a Legislative Finance Report earlier this year stated that while New Mexico’s charter schools only serve 7 percent of the student population, they have received 46 percent of public-school funding increases in the past seven years.

National studies on charter schools say that for the most part they do not out-perform more traditional public schools in academics. Sallee told the committee that the Legislature has yet to authorize an in-depth study on this issue in New Mexico.

“Many parents are choosing to send their kids to charter schools, and that comes with an expectation. Will that result in higher performance? I think the jury is still out,” Sallee said.

He said lawmakers could clarify language regarding charter school financing, which predates the Martinez administration.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, cautioned against changing the funding formula in a way that would “hurt some of our schools. And we have to remember that charter schools are public schools.”

After the meeting, Ivey-Soto said he expects a bill placing a moratorium on new charter schools to be introduced during the 60-day legislative session that starts in January. He said he might not introduce that bill, but he would support it.

New Mexico has about 100 charter schools, but not all of them are state charters. School districts have the right to approve charter schools without going through the Public Education Commission for approval.

In Santa Fe, for example, the Academy for Technology and the Classics is a district charter, while Monte del Sol Charter School is a state charter.

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

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