School Choice & Charters

New Mexico’s Largest Cyber Charter School Loses Appeal to Stay Open

By Arianna Prothero — April 12, 2018 3 min read
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New Mexico’s education chief has decided not to renew the charter contract of the state’s largest online charter school, and a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Public Education Department told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the school will close in June.

This is notable because online charter schools, most of which are run by one of two national companies based on the East Coast, rarely shut down even when plagued with poor performance or financial mismanagement Education Weekfound in an analysis of more than 10 years of news stories, state reports, and research.

New Mexico Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski said that after receiving two years of F grades from the state’s accountability system, the New Mexico Connections Academy, which has around 1,300 students, had failed to live up to its potential, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The school, which opened in 2013, had appealed to the state’s top education official after its authorizer, the Public Education Commission, also refused to renew its charter back in December.

Around the same time, a report put together by two nonpartisan legislative committees for state lawmakers found that all three of the state’s virtual schools have “struggled to provide acceptable outcomes, demonstrate fiscal responsibility, and comply with state law.”

The prospects look grim for the New Mexico Connections Academy, which is run by Connections Education, the second-largest for-profit charter school operating company in the country. The school may still find a way to stay open, however. The nonrenewal decision could be appealed to a district court, as the Santa Fe New Mexican says some supportive lawmakers hope it will, or the school could potentially switch to another oversight group or authorizer, if it can find a local school district to sponsor it.

As I wrote in December, the legislative report raised the alarm that local school districts could be tempted to take on struggling cyber charters to increase revenue. It also found that virtual school students in the state performed on average worse in reading and math and had less academic growth than their peers in traditional, brick-and-mortar schools. That’s even though virtual schools serve fewer students who are learning English, have disabilities, or are from low-income families. There are a little over 2,000 students total enrolled in the state’s cyber charters.

The report also raised concerns over whether the companies that the three cyber charters contract with for services play too large a role in running the schools. Although public schools can contract with for-profit providers for some services such as curriculum, state law bans for-profit companies from making staffing decisions or operating schools entirely.

Finally, the report said that there is a concerning lack of financial transparency in New Mexico’s online schools. For example, monthly invoices from the operating companies to the schools at times surpassed six figures but lacked detail on the services they were charging schools for. (For the reports recommendadtions, see this story.)

Many of these same issues have cropped up with virtual schools across the country, as Education Week detailed in a 2016 investigation. As part of that work, we compiled reports of trouble in cyber charters from local media outlets, state agencies, and researchers over the past decade into an interactive map, which you can explore here:

Map: Cyber Charters Have a New Champion in Betsy DeVos, But Struggles Continue

The map is updated through 2017.

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Correction: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement that New Mexico Connections Academy will close in June to a spokewoman for the New Mexico Public Education Department.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.