Fox in the Henhouse?

Critics say education secretary wrongly renewed schools' charters

While touting new standards-based initiatives to improve New Mexico's public schools, state Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera gave three failing charter schools a pass, in defiance of state regulators.

This summer, Skandera overruled the Public Education Commission's decision not to renew the charters of three Albuquerque charter schools, despite their poor student achievement results and other significant issues. She called the PEC's decision to deny the schools "arbitrary and capricious," but a link between Skandera's renewal of the charters and a recent hiring decision has critics saying politics, not education policy, drove Skandera's reversal.

The PEC voted last December not to renew the charters of Ralph J Bunche Academy, La Resolana Leadership Academy and The Learning Community Charter School. This spring, Skandera overruled the vote, which became official June 30.

During the last three weeks of June, PED also contracted for "professional services" with a law firm that represented charter school clients. On July 1, Skandera hired one of that firm's lawyers, Patricia Matthews, to head the division of PED that regulates charter schools.

"Based on [Matthews'] background and what she did, it looked like they were hiring the fox to guard the henhouse," state Public Education Commissioner Jeff Carr says.

Professional service agreements posted online by some charter schools show Matthews Fox PC law firm had contracts with some schools ending June 30, but Matthews added that she was also "providing a new Professional Services Agreement that would, if approved, be effective from July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012." The documents don't indicate whether the contracts were renewed, but PED spokesman Larry Behrens says Matthews currently has "no financial interest in any New Mexico charter schools," and that she sent letters to all her former clients in late June "clearly stating she will no longer represent them."

Nevertheless, Matthews' cozy relationship with the institutions she now regulates creates "the appearance of impropriety" at the very least, Carr says. Matthews' legal partner Susan Fox argued on behalf of Ralph J Bunche Academy at a December hearing, confirming that at least one of the schools affected by Skandera's decision was Matthews' client.

Ralph J Bunche Academy and the other two schools the PEC voted to shut down were the worst-performing charter schools up for renewal for the current school year. Students at Ralph J Bunche had "Standards Based Assessment" achievement scores for reading a whopping 33 percentage points below the state average. The academy was cited for having unqualified teachers, 23 audit findings over the most recently audited school year (2009-2010), violations of the state Open Meetings Act and failure to abide by the terms of its own charter. Sam Obenshain, who headed the Charter Schools Division of the PED until the end of June, calls the school a "loose and shoddy organization."

La Resolana Leadership Academy had reading scores 31 percentage points below and math scores 22 percentage points below the state average. Thirteen percent of its graduating eighth graders didn't enroll in high school, and its enrollment hovered around 25 percent of its total capacity.

“If the enrollment is declining—then that says something about the quality of the school, that the parents are voting with their feet,” Obenshain says.

When she overruled the PEC, Skandera said she will “decline” to deny renewal to any charter based solely on Standards Based Assessment tests, which she called an “obsolete” metric.

The Learning Community Charter School was also cited for low student achievement scores and for legal issues, including the use of disallowed screening factors such as special needs and medical concerns on its student application form. The school was also requiring students to pay for books—required by law to be provided free of charge—and be reimbursed later only if they passed the class.

"[The Learning Community has] a high graduation rate, yet they have a low proficiency rate…our concern was, 'What kind of graduates are coming out of your school?' Obenshain says. "If they're not proficient, really that doesn't say much for your students' progress."

None of the three schools returned SFR's calls for comment.

When she overruled the PEC, Skandera said she would "decline" to deny renewal to any charter based solely on Standards Based Assessment tests, which she called an "obsolete" metric.

But those testing data serve as a partial basis for several initiatives Skandera has spearheaded. She chairs the Effective Teacher Task Force, which calls for evaluating the state's teachers based more on student achievement data than on credentials and years of experience. Two of the task force's five recommendations are based on SBA data, and a report issued by the task force in August calls SBA "currently New Mexico's most valid and reliable statewide assessment."

"[Skandera] says she's a supporter of high accountability standards," Obenshain says. "We felt, by overturning the renewal decisions, she was really talking out of both sides of her mouth."

But Behrens says those new initiatives aren't based solely on SBA data.

"Your assumption around [SBA] would be correct if that were the only measure used for our initiatives," Behrens writes SFR in an email. "But other measures such as graduation rate, ACT scores, teacher observations and many more are part of the conversation around many of PED's reforms."

But Carr says Skandera's end run around the PEC not only lowers the bar for charter schools, but also wastes time the PEC spent analyzing the schools.

"My worry was that [the reversal] set a precedent that anybody could send in a half-finished application and all they have to do is appeal it…It makes the whole process of the Charter School Division of the PED and the PEC's hard work totally moot," Carr says.

The Legislative Education Study Committee issued a staff report on Skandera's decision in late May, questioning whether the appeal process should be eliminated entirely and noting that the PEC's decision not to renew the charters was based on evidence of serious academic and legal problems at the schools. To Carr, however, Skandera's reversal was exactly what she accused the PEC's of being: "arbitrary and capricious."

"She really gave no substantial factual information to back up a reason as to why she reversed us, and as to what we said was arbitrary and capricious," Carr says. "She just said we were."

The charter snafu has led Carr to propose changes to the state constitution that would curb the executive branch's control over public education. Earlier this month, Carr submitted a resolution to the state Democratic Party that would make the secretary a publicly elected position instead of a governor-appointed one, and remove the secretary's power to reverse any decision the PEC makes.

The report accompanying Carr's resolution, which he plans to introduce at the state Democratic Party's preprimary convention, argues that the current law makes the state education system too vulnerable to the whims and politically motivated decisions of the governor and her appointees, such as the charters' renewals.

"It didn't, what I would call, 'pass the smell test,'" Carr says. "It didn't look right."

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