3 Questions

3 Questions with NM Public Education Commissioner Steven J Carrillo

Santa Fe’s incumbent faces no challengers on the June 4 ballot

Five positions on New Mexico’s Public Education Commission are up for re-election this year, including District 10, which includes Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Taos counties. Former Santa Fe Public Schools Board Member Steven Carrillo, a Democrat, has held the PEC District 10 seat since January 2021, and is running unopposed in the June 4 primary and at present in the general election (only Bernalillo’s District 1 is set up for a general election contest). Carrillo says the lack of competition doesn’t detract from what he characterizes as the PEC’s crucial role overseeing charter school education in the state.

How does the PEC affect charter schools in New Mexico?

Think of us as the school board for all the state charter schools. We authorize them, and we hold them accountable through negotiating contracts and what’s called a ‘performance framework.’ When we negotiate with them, we agree on what the benchmarks should be for their performance ‘and what they want to meet both academically and in terms of their mission, and that’s agreed upon between both parties. We used to only do this during renewal time [every five years], but now we’re annually looking at their progress and holding them accountable for the agreement that they made to increase performance. The most difficult piece of that is getting data from [the state Public Education Department]—getting data a year late doesn’t help anyone. We just signed a contract with [nonprofit organization] Epicenter at the last PEC meetin…so that we can get [standardized testing] data much more quickly directly from the schools to the PEC. The commission is really involved in trying to get the best information as quickly as possible, because that will help schools.

Can you explain how charter schools in New Mexico differ from charter schools elsewhere?

[Outside of New Mexico,] sometimes they’re private, sometimes they’re for profit and there’s a number of ways that they might not serve what’s in the best interest of kids—it’s maybe in the best interest of charter management organizations. What’s really great here is all charter schools are public schools. They’re all funded with the same money—the State Equalization Guarantee money—and they’re all held accountable with the PEC, and they enjoy the autonomy that is foundational to charters. But at the same time, we hold their feet to the fire if they’re not performing as well as they should. By holding state charters to higher standards, while maintaining their autonomy and innovation, we expect increases in math and English language proficiency. I think that’s what all New Mexicans want, and I think on the state charter side, we’re delivering. All kids have equal access to any charter, whether it’s a district charter or a state charter. It’s a lottery that’s open to everyone. When you look at the numbers, whether it’s district or state charter schools, we have the same percentages as the whole state in English language learners and students with free and reduced lunch. That’s not cherry picking. That is extremely important to know. Charters don’t siphon off money from districts that should go to kids in district schools. These are all public school kids, and they’re all getting money from the same pot.

What are some ways you’ve affected state charter schools through your position on the PEC?

On the negative side, we closed La Tierra Montessori School in the Española Valley. Within a year, they spiraled so quickly, so hard, that it couldn’t be ignored. When a board is not taking their role as seriously or actively as they should and a school essentially will fall into disrepair, it needs to be righted. And if they can’t right it over the years, we’ll close it, and that’s what we had to do with La Tierra. If we kept this school open, we’d just be hurting kids. It was a heart-wrenching decision. I would also say my work on the new performance framework, which holds schools much more accountable. I think I’ve brought much more of that to the commission than there was before I got there. And, of course, approving THRIVE [Community School in Santa Fe]. It’s rare, but they met their goal for their number of kids this year, and they met every benchmark right out of the gate. I’m very proud to know [Co-founder and Director] Sean Duncan, and to have been very supportive of that school. I was asked to run for the PEC when I left the SFPS Board, and my main concern was, ‘Is this a place where I can make a difference?’ When I realized it was a place I could make a difference in the lives of families and kids, offering kids more choice and opportunity—that’s when I decided it was something I’ll do.

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