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In New Mexico, A High Quality Charter School Gets Punished by State Regulators

Forbes | June 4, 2020
By Jeanne Allen, Founder and CEO of CER

It’s hard to believe, but an A rated school in Albuquerque, New Mexico for over four years – only one of 13% of schools in the state with that distinction – has been denied an expansion to serve the 1,000 students on the waiting list. Even in a time of Covid, and uncertainty over schooling, more than 1,000 parents trust that the Mission Achievement and Success Charter School (MAS) will serve their children well, no matter the environmental factors we face today.

And it’s no wonder parents want to send their students to MAS. In early literacy, MAS has outperformed the State of New Mexico, the Albuquerque school district and other area school districts by margins of 20-30% higher.  They’ve seen similar results in math.  Their student body is 90% minority and 81% economically disadvantaged. 100% of MAS students have graduated high school with acceptance to either college or the armed forces.

On the 2019 National Assessment of Educational ProgressNation’s Report Card, New Mexico students rated 46th in math proficiency and 48th in reading. In all grades charter school students outperformed traditional public school students. That’s not a blind criticism; it’s a fact. As difficult as that is for some to accept facts, there should be no reason that any governmental agency tasked with approving and overseeing the creation and expansion of charter schools – it’s sole reason for existence – would deny families for whom education is the great equalizer the lifeline and opportunity they deserve.

Enter the Public Education Commission (PEC), the state authorizer for charter schools. An elected body (never a good idea in charter school laws, but that’s another story), the PEC listened to “neighbors” of MAS complaining that the traffic generated by the school was inconvenient for them and a possible safety hazard. After changing the rules for the hearing to allow hours of testimony from previously unknown opponents, Commission Chairwoman Patricia Gipson personally read every email from the neighbors who were “inconvenienced” by traffic. She refused to read the letters of support for MAS – hundreds of them! – from students, staff, parents, and the community, including the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. There were over 150 staff members, parents, and students in attendance at the PEC Zoom meeting on May 22nd.

The Public Education Commission also received a petition with 2,117 signatures from family members, students, waitlisted families, and community members supporting the cap increase.

When the NM Public Education Department Transportation Bureau inspected the school earlier this school year, they had no issues with safety and found arrival/dismissal to be one of the safest they had seen. The school’s insurance carrier also inspected for safety, saw no issues and indicated the arrival and dismissal procedures were fully compliant. MAS also asked for local law enforcement from both the city and county to observe and neither noted concerns.

With more than 1,300 students in grades K-12 spread out over two campuses. Most of the neighbors love seeing a successful, safe, mission driven school in their area. But a vocal minority complained that MAS refused to make the arrival/dismissal area of the school a school zone, with flashing lights and a prominent crosswalk. The PEC accepted that at face value when in reality, the school has been asking for precisely that for years and has been denied and told it was not necessary.

Minutes after the PEC voted to deny the enrollment increase based on perceived claims about safety issues, MAS’s leaders asked what they could do to prove the school was “safe” in the Commission’s eyes. PEC said they couldn’t say for sure, and maybe MAS could check the record, even though they had voted on this very issue literally minutes before.

Educational excellence obviously wasn’t on the agenda for the PEC, though it clearly should have been.  Nobody disputed the fact that MAS was giving thousands of Albuquerque kids an education superior to what they could get elsewhere in the city. Nobody disputed the fact that by doing so MAS was increasing the lifetime earning potential of these economically disadvantaged kids by hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of dollars. The Commissioners clearly had wanted to protect the status quo, perhaps to ensure their reelection on June 2. That’s why politics shouldn’t be part of the education process.

Shame on the PEC. Isn’t there enough hostility and tension in the world today? Isn’t trauma from Covid and racism doing enough harm to our communities? The only antidote to ignorance is education. MAS is doing its part to ensure that low income families have an opportunity to become productive citizens that we can hope will drive a better tomorrow for all people. This is not the first time the state has tried to hamper this schools’ work and attempts to do its job.

It’s time for the public to say enough – peacefully.  It may be too late to throw the PEC out of office this time, but the people can influence the make-up of the state legislature to make changes in law that ensure that those who oppose equal educational opportunity for all never have the privilege of serving in public office again.

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Founded in 1993, the Center for Education Reform aims to expand educational opportunities that lead to improved economic outcomes for all Americans — particularly our youth — ensuring that conditions are ripe for innovation, freedom and flexibility throughout U.S. education.