New Mexico weighs options as online schools falter
By MORGAN LEE
Dec. 19, 2017
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico state lawmakers expressed dismay at lagging academic results and spending practices at online charter schools on Tuesday, as education regulators seek to de-authorize the state's largest school devoted to teaching over the internet.
A panel of lawmakers received a new study from two legislative agencies showing that the three so-called virtual charter schools in New Mexico provide lower academic achievement in general than classroom-based schools — even though the online schools enroll fewer at-risk students from impoverished, non-English speaking families.
The study tracked academic results, school finances and governance at charter schools that oversee some 2,150 students across the state where students receive all their instruction online rather than in classrooms.
It found math and reading proficiency lagged behind averages at brick-and-mortar schools. Far fewer instructors and counselors were available per student at online schools, though they receive equal per-student state funding and sidestepped expense for maintaining classrooms and other buildings. About one-in-10 students achieved math proficiency at one online school.
Republican Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho said online schools should be able to help students in remote, rural settings where students might otherwise commute for three or four hours a day.
"It's costing us a lot of money to get very poor results," he said.
Beyond New Mexico, the debate over the future of virtual schools has received renewed attention since the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an online charter investor and advocate who sees them as a valuable option for students.
New Mexico education authorities last week took steps to de-authorize and defund the largest online school, Santa Fe-based New Mexico Connections Academy, because of faltering academic achievement among students, along with concerns about truancy. About 1,350 students across the state were enrolled in the school as of last year.
Analysts with the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Committee and Legislative Education Study Committee also raised concerns about academic performance and spending at New Mexico Virtual Academy, which serves about 500 students in grades 6-12 and is overseen by Carlsbad Municipal Schools, and Pecos Connections Academy, which serves K-12 students and is supervised by Carlsbad Municipal Schools.
The study highlighted reliance on for-profit curriculum providers, and the potential influence of those companies on day-to-day education decisions in a state that prohibits for-profit schools.
Without competitive bidding, the three virtual charter schools sent $7.5 million during the fiscal year ending in June to Virginia-based K12 Inc. and Maryland-based Connections Education, a unit of Pearson, the study found.
"That means that half of the money they're getting goes to these for-profit companies, and we're really don't know what we're getting," said Nathan Eckberg, a program evaluator for the Legislative Finance Committee.
He said the contract between New Mexico Virtual Academy and K12 gave the contractor control over hiring and firing decisions at the school. The school said K12 never exercised that authority.
Sen. Bill Soules, a Democrat from Las Cruces, faulted education officials with the administration of GOP Gov. Susana Martinez for lax enforcement of procurement regulations.
"It just seems to me there's been a whole lot of 'look the other way,'" he said.
Katie Poulos, a division director overseeing virtual charters at the Public Education Department, emphasized that primary responsibility over online school governance falls to local school districts or New Mexico's elected state charter school commission, the Public Education Commission.
Soules told Poulos that her agency overruled the charter-school commission when it refused in 2011 to authorize the startup of New Mexico Connections Academy.
Proposed legislation stalled this year that would have automatically closed poorly performing virtual charter schools and reduced funding to reflect money saved by schools without campuses.