A Quiet Revolution

Jerry Ortiz y Pino
5 min read
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There is no escape! There really is no end in sight! I'm just guessing here, but I'm sure that during last week's tumultuous school board hearing on charter school renewals this thought must have crossed the minds of all APS School officials present.

Charter School legislation might say that these independent public school licenses have to come up for renewal every five years, but that's not exactly true. It has now become very clear that the constituency for these schools is so strong and so united that realistically the educational establishment can't dare attempt pulling the plug.

In a quiet revolution that I believe will strengthen public education in the long run, APS has discovered that today fully 20 percent of the high school students in the system are being educated in charter schools.

Administration officials will quote a far lower percentage for total charter enrollment in APS, something like 6 percent (5,000 out of 90,000), but if you consider that the dozen plus charter high schools enroll almost 4,000 of the charters' total and that there are only about 20,000 APS high schoolers, you get a clearer picture of the full impact of the charter phenomenon on APS.

To me, that impact is almost completely positive. A high percentage of those 4,000 teenagers enrolled in charters would have become dropouts otherwise. The availability of small-scale, flexible and specialized public high school options via the charters and the alternative schools in the system has been a big factor in what seems to be a significant improvement in APS' dropout rate.

The avid support given the charter schools by the students, teachers and parents means that any tampering with them will be likely to unleash typhoon-force waves of opposition, which is exactly what happened last week when articles in the press suggested that the APS board was on the verge of a blanket denial for the five schools up for renewal (all of which serve high school-age students).

Hundreds of angry and frustrated supporters packed the new APS administration high rise at City Center and surrounded the building with marching protestors waving signs: “Honk if you support Charter education.” It didn't take long for the board to act in the face of this demonstration of interest. All five of the schools with charters up for renewal were approved. The crowd cheered and went home. The school board breathed a sigh of relief and resumed its regular agenda, a confrontation smoothly finessed.

So, to get analytical, what did this episode (and its consequences) all mean? The immediate response from the Albuquerque Journal editorial page was that charter schools need to be moved out of APS and put directly under the state Public Education Department, a view that is shared by at least one board member (Robert Lucero) but one that the Legislature has so far been loath to make into policy.

In the six year history of our state's charter education law, a number of difficult dilemmas have surfaced and ultimately been resolved. Special education (costs and liabilities), auditing practices and oversight responsibilities were all knotty concerns that have been worked out. There is a remaining hurdle, though, which seems particularly daunting: the issue of educational facilities.

However, the subject is complicated by a court-ordered solution to a completely different question—the class action suit filed by the Zuni Schools to force a more equitable system for financing public school construction. The resolution of that legal challenge has (almost as an after-thought) dragged charter education into the spotlight.

The Zuni case created a way for every single facility used for K-12 schooling in the state to be assessed as to its safety and suitability; then ranked in order, from the neediest to the most satisfactory. The state is committed to spending its public school capital outlay dollars each year on the highest priorities on that list, starting at No. 1 and working down until there is no money left. Each year a new prioritized list is to be prepared, one covering all public classroom buildings in New Mexico.

That's a neat system, one flawed only by the fact that most of the state's 49 charter schools, created without realistic financing for facilities, have been for six years locating in leased storefronts, used portables, church basements and renovated warehouses. In other words, an incredibly high percentage of New Mexico's neediest school facilities are housing charter schools.

Some APS officials (keep in mind that almost 60 percent of all charter schools in the whole state and easily 75 percent of all charter students are within APS) fear that every available capital outlay dollar will be spent on charters in Albuquerque leaving nothing for all the other local public schools. That worry is what led them to seriously consider refusing to renew the five charters last week.

I think there is a better way to resolve this dilemma and to provide realistic support for the very significant capital outlay needs of the charter schools, one that doesn't have to threaten noncharter education's building needs. The governor and the Legislature should establish a separate Charter Capital Outlay fund. This is one case where separate really would create equal.

There's no reason to scrap the successful charter experiment. Just provide it with the money it needs to produce excellent facilities. That investment will pay dividends and will keep local school boards from hyperventilating every time a charter proposal reaches them.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. Ortiz y Pino is a state senator, representing District 12, and a board member at RFK Charter School. E-mail jerry@alibi.com

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