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Virtual Charter Schools Fail to Make the Grade in New Mexico

Michael Hernandez


Virtual charter schools are supposed to provide students with an online education equivalent to what they would receive at a physical school. But recent findings presented to the Legislative Education Study Committee show that hasn’t been the case in New Mexico.

Committee members met at Centennial High School to evaluate state virtual charter school performance. National Association of Charter School Authorizers’ Policy Director Veronica Brooks-Uy said unfortunately, online charters in New Mexico and nationwide are not where they need to be academically.

Both in math and reading across most demographics children in virtual charter schools are not performing as highly as they would in traditional charter schools or traditional schools,” Brooks-Uy said.

Full-time virtual charter school students have 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading. That’s according to a committee presentation by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. It cited students across the board have weaker academic growth in full-time virtual charter schools than in traditional public schools, where students stay for an average of 2 years.

Committee Chair Sen. Mimi Stewart said she’s very concerned with the low academic performance at virtual charters.

“The performance of the students in our virtual charter schools is not acceptable. It’s hundreds and hundreds of students that are not learning and yet we’re paying for that education,” Stewart said.

A joint report by the Legislative Education Study Committee and Legislative Finance Committee said virtual charter schools served more than 2,000 New Mexico students in fiscal year 2017. The state’s three virtual charter schools that year paid $7.5 million, or half of their total funding, to two for-profit, out-of-state companies. Stewart said that’s unfair.

You know, it’s kind of like the public schools have been hoodwinked by this because they’re mostly run by two major for-profit companies that have wormed their way into the public school funding formulas by opening up these virtual online charters,” Stewart said. “They haven’t been around very long and their track record is dismal in almost every state. Dismal.”

After two straight failing grades, the Public Education Commission voted in December not to renew the state’s largest online virtual charter, New Mexico Connections Academy. Brooks-Uy said the school’s closure in June shows the state is holding virtual charters accountable.

“I think the good news though is that because they were closed right, because they were held accountable for those poor performance results, we know that the system is actually working here. What we want to see is that charter schools are doing right by kids and getting them to a higher performance level and when that’s not happening they shouldn’t be allowed to continue,” Brooks-Uy said.

Despite their poor performance, Brooks-Uy said some students choose to learn online rather than in-person for many reasons. She said for students who are ill, bullied, or athletes, taking classes online is a practical alternative.

“I think that the students who benefit the most from virtual charter school education are those who have someone in the home to really make sure that they’re staying on progress,” Brooks-Uy said. “So, highly motivated students with highly motivated and involved leaders, whether that be a parent or a guardian, those are the students that we see who do the best in virtual charter education.”

Democratic State Sen. Bill Soules said he’s concerned students who learn exclusively online are missing out not just on an education but also other life experiences.

That loses a lot of what our public schools truly are about which is learning to get along with other people from different backgrounds and cultures,” Soules said. “Many of the soft skills that you learn in school don’t have to do with the actual academics of math and other place and when we’ve got virtual schools that aren’t giving the academics that are promised, and the students aren’t getting the social-emotional, those aren’t schools we ought to continue to support.”

Education officials recommended to the board that states should only allow authorizers with statewide or regional chartering authority to oversee full-time charter schools and only enroll students from within their districts. They also recommended states should limit enrollment based on academic performance.

Dr. Lisa Grover is senior director of state policy and advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Grover said she’d like to see full-time virtual charters take more action to raise student performance.

As school reform advocates I believe it’s incumbent upon us to learn what we can and make improvements and continue to move forward because at the end of the day, I’ve said this for years; it’s not a bookstore, we’re not selling books, we’re not selling dresses. We’re educating young people and that is a privilege and using what we know works I think is incumbent upon all of us as taxpayers and as parents and as concerned citizens,” Grover said.

Stewart said the committee plans to hold hearings to write a new statute to regulate virtual charter schools and present a bill to the state House and Senate Education Committees in January.

Michael Hernandez was a multimedia reporter for KRWG Public Media from late 2017 through early 2020. He continues to appear on KRWG-TV from time to time on our popular "EnviroMinute" segments, which feature conservation and citizen science issues in the region.