States Continue Charter School Debates

Last Updated: May 30, 2013

This article appeared in the May 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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New Mexico Moves Forward with Virtual Charters

A group of state legislators and education officials, concerned about the largely untested waters of virtual charter schools, attempted to put some limits on their growth but were met with opposition from several fronts.

Some of the controversy around virtual charter schools began last fall, when the Public Education Commission (New Mexico’s elected state school board) voted against approving the proposal of New Mexico Connections Academy, an online K–12 charter school. The Academy appealed, and this past winter Education Secretary Designate Hanna Skandera overruled the Commission. The Commission had said that the school’s mission was not in the best interest of students and that virtual education was no substitute for in-person learning.

As in other states, deep divisions over virtual charters schools exist within the New Mexico education community and in the state at large. Larry Behrens, spokesman for the Public Education Department, tried to frame the issue along geographic lines, saying, "It's terribly unfortunate that some members of the Legislature want to make sure our children and their parents do not have access to a good education. It may be easy for some in Albuquerque to discount the opportunity virtual learning brings, however we believe students, particularly in rural areas, should have more options."

Legislators introduced two bills in response to these developments, one that would make the Public Education Commission the final decision maker on charter school approval, and one that prohibited the state or school districts from contracting with private entities to run a public school or any of its programs. Rep. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) helped lead the effort, saying, "Do we want corporations from Virginia setting up shop in New Mexico. ... What does Virginia know about our New Mexico students? What does Connections Academy know about our New Mexico students?"

Both bills passed but were vetoed by the governor.

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North Carolina

Education advocates concerned about the impact of virtual charter schools on student achievement saw several issues addressed in a strongly worded policy from the North Carolina State Board of Education The Board policy established that virtual charter schools may only educate students in grades 6 through 12; the student-teacher ratio cannot exceed 50-to-1 per class; their graduation rate must be no less than 10% below the overall state average for any two out of three consecutive years; and the student withdrawal rate may not be higher than 15% for any two out of three consecutive years.

However, efforts to expand the presence and authority of charter schools in the state have continued in the legislature, including a bill that would create an independent board to govern public charter schools. Currently the State Board of Education has that authority. The bill would also remove the requirement that at least 50% of teachers in charter schools hold a teaching certificate.

The debate about virtual charter schools ramped up last year when the State Board of Education refused to consider the charter application of the nonprofit, NC Learns, representing the K–12 Corporation. The Board had said that without a virtual charter school policy in place, it could not assess the application’s strengths and weaknesses.

NC Learns appealed that decision; the case is still pending in court. Another bill in the North Carolina House could force the Board to consider again the virtual application.

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The Mississippi legislature passed a new charter school law that will allow up to 15 new charter schools each year. The state previously had one of the nation’s most restrictive charter laws. It provided a charter conversion process only for consistently low-performing schools. Expansion of that law has been hotly debated for the past two years.

Senators compromised by adopting the House’s charter school bill, which was signed into law by Governor Phil Bryant. Students will not be able to cross district lines to attend charter schools, and charters must mirror the population of the area they serve.

In addition, school districts rated A, B, or C under the state’s accountability measures can choose to prohibit charter schools in their districts; private schools may not convert to charter schools; and for-profit companies are prohibited from operating schools in Mississippi.

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Other Charter School Coverage

Here is an overview of other states’ attempts at virtual charter accountability:

Special report by Reuters on barriers to enrollment in charter schools for low-income students and others:


Read more from the May 2013 Rural Policy Matters.