Who Rules the Schools?

An elected commission wants more authority over NM's public education system

Almost since her appointment, Public Education Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera—an administrator who played a key role in Florida's education reform initiatives—has faced opposition from New Mexico Democrats. They've opposed many of her reform efforts, including a requirement that kids who can't read by the end of third grade be held back and, more recently, a new teacher-evaluation system. The Democrat-controlled Senate also has yet to formally confirm her appointment as cabinet secretary.

But the latest flap is both subtler and potentially more significant. Last week, the Public Education Commission, a quasi-independent body that falls under the Public Education Department's—and hence Skandera's—jurisdiction, presented a plan to curb Skandera's authority over charter schools. The plan would also sever the PEC from PED and make it a stand-alone agency, much like its predecessor was.

Six of the PEC's nine members are Democrats, but they say the change simply represents a partial return to the PEC's origins.

"It's something we've had in the past," Commissioner Jeff Carr, D-Taos, says of the proposal to restore the PEC's authority. "There's no great oversight over the PED right now, and we are elected officials."

The proposal stems from Skandera's decision last summer to override the PEC's December 2010 decision not to renew contracts with three charter schools. After all three schools appealed the rulings, Skandera overturned the PEC's decision the following spring [news, Oct. 12, 2011: "Fox in the Henhouse?"].

At the hearing, PEC Chair M Andrew Garrison, D-Albuquerque, commented on the PEC's loss of authority, saying that the commission's "role as state authorizer has been diminished to being advisory only."

The schools initially dumped in 2010—Ralph J Bunche Academy, La Resolana Leadership Academy and the Learning Community Charter School, all in Albuquerque—were at the time the three worst-performing charters in the state, with state standardized test scores as much as 33 percent below the state average. Ralph J Bunche alone had 23 audit findings.

Unlike traditional public schools, charters, which receive public money but operate more like private specialty schools, must contract with the state. If a school doesn't meet the contract's stipulations, the state doesn't have to renew it, which effectively shuts down the school.

But Skandera renewed the three failing schools' contracts anyway, noting that the state's Standards Based Assessment scores were an "obsolete metric." To Carr and others, the decision made all the work the commission put into evaluating the applications simply a waste of time.

"They said our decision was 'arbitrary and capricious,'" Carr tells SFR. "But the charter division of the PED had recommended that they be denied renewal based on the fact that there were [many] different factors they had not accomplished."

The hefty power of the education secretary dates back to a change made early on in the Gov. Bill Richardson administration. Before that, a 15-member State Board of Education, which later became the PEC, had jurisdiction over PED and the authority to select the education superintendent, which is now a governor-appointed education secretary.

In 2003, at Richardson's urging, voters passed a constitutional amendment elevating public education to a cabinet-level department and transferring much of the power over education policy to the governor. It was one of Richardson's many successful efforts to concentrate state government oversight in the executive branch.

Today, the PEC's powers are essentially limited to some charter school oversight and helping spend the federal Perkins Grant, which helps vocational schools.

Carr, who says he reluctantly supported the 2003 amendment, says Richardson was effectively sidestepping opposition.

"At that time, the governor was very supportive of charter schools, and there were a lot of members on the board that were standing in the way of that," Carr says. "He wanted to weaken it, basically."

In one of its arguments against the 2003 amendment, the Legislative Council Service wrote that it was "nothing more than an attempt to fool the voters into believing that a state board of education or similar policymaking body elected by the voters will remain in charge, at least in part, of New Mexico's public education system."

"In reality," the argument continues, "the amendment strips the current state board of education members of their constitutional power to determine public school policy."

Now, the PEC aims to get some of that power back.

After four commissioners spent months drafting the PEC's latest proposal, the commission voted unanimously to endorse it.

But LESC member and outgoing state Sen. Steve Fischmann, D-Doña Ana, notes that the 2003 amendment was intended to prevent the PEC from dictating policy to the PED. At the time, the board had 15 active voting members, which a different LCS argument maintains was "simply too large to create coherent and effective statewide educational policy."

"Now they're asking for legislation that gives them that power," Fischmann says of the PEC, "and that's a huge step."

He adds that the PEC is defining the problem solely according to its needs.

"Defining the problem as, 'We, the PEC, don't have the authority we want to have, so let's legislate to give us the authority'—that's defining the problem as protecting a board rather than defining the problem as, 'How do we get the best for our students?'" Fischmann says.

He concedes that the PEC and PED have a communication problem and that something should be done to address it. Carr agrees, noting that Skandera hasn't showed up to a PEC meeting in over a year.

"[W]e work hard to make sure communication lines are as open as possible," PED spokesman Larry Behrens writes in an email. But Floyd Trujillo, president of Turquoise Trail Charter School Foundation, says it's still unclear which body has final authority over charters.

"In order for the charter school movement to become successful, [charter law] needs to be spelled out, and everyone needs to understand the process," he says.

Murky Territory

Carr says charter schools, which receive public money but operate more like private specialty schools, are legislatively murky territory.

“Charter schools have to be nonprofits, but there are people behind them—software that they buy and materials that they may buy or buildings they lease—that could be profitable to somebody who’s not that distant to the people who founded the charter school,” Carr says.

But a lack of oversight in education can cut both ways. At last week’s hearing, state Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Chaves, was confused by the PEC’s definition of “material violations,”—ie breaches of promises made in a charter school’s contracts that could be grounds for not renewing for a contract. Espinoza pointed out that traditional public schools aren’t held to the same standards.

“Public education also has to deliver when it comes to our kids, and this definition of material violation is totally confusing because we must also have standards for [traditional] public schools,” she said.

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