When a group as essential to good government as the League of Women Voters of New Mexico speaks up, it’s with authority. That’s why a recent proposal from League officials asking for a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools in New Mexico is one worth considering.
The proposal, taken to the Legislative Finance Committee earlier this month, asks for legislation to enact a moratorium on new charter schools until achievement scores for all students improve and until the state ensures “funding equity for all public school students.”
More to the point, a moratorium could offer the opportunity to look critically at how the abundance of charter schools is affecting public school education in general. It should not be seen as a move to shut down the charter movement, but rather as a necessary pause to plan growth. We liken it to the difference in old adobe houses that grew, one room at a time, with little thought, and houses built later, with blueprints, containing closets and storage and all the amenities that planning can bring.
Our education system, to be blunt, resembles those sprawling, unplanned houses. We can do better without shortchanging either parental choice or equitable funding. It doesn’t have to be an open-ended moratorium, either, but one with a set period — two years, perhaps. In that time, educators and political leaders must critically examine how charters are working and how they should work within the public education system.
Unfortunately, any talk about slowing down growth or considering new charters more critically tends to break down along party lines. Already, the GOP Secretary of Public Education Hanna Skandera has said a moratorium is a bad idea: “Our kids’ parents need to be provided with choices, and charter schools give that to them.”
Choice is just one factor, however. And decisions should be about what’s best for children, not always what their parents want. Taking a pause to look at how charters work in New Mexico — not just in academic performance, but in funding and oversight of how those dollars are spent — is a worthy endeavor.
Such a critical examination could also look at the structure of how public schools are run. New Mexico has 33 counties but 89 public school districts; surely, in that sprawling bureaucracy, there is room for fewer jobs for adults and more money directly spent on students. The time for a halt to new charters couldn’t be better, either. There’s a new nonprofit, the New Mexico Center for Charter School Excellence, that wants to help launch 30 new charters in New Mexico by 2020.
What we need to ask ourselves is simply this: Are we spending precious — and often insufficient — tax dollars in the best way possible?
The state public funding formula, according to numbers from the Legislative Finance Committee, increased by almost $212 million between Fiscal Year 2008 and Fiscal Year 2015. Of that amount, charter schools, which serve about 7 percent of students statewide, received almost $98 million, or 46 percent. The state’s 89 school districts, by contrast, saw increased formula funding of almost $114 million. The money is not flowing equally if 7 percent of students received 46 percent of the funding formula increase.
With some 100 charter schools in the state, New Mexico is no slouch in providing alternatives for children. But alternatives for some children should not come at the expense of the well-being of many children. Yet that’s exactly what is happening right now in New Mexico.