N.M. Schools Chief Overrules Panel, Clears Path for Virtual School
New Mexico state schools chief Hanna Skandera has overruled her state's public education commission and approved a new statewide online provider, arguing that the panel's rejection of the virtual program relied on faulty logic and a misreading of the law.
The online provider, Connections Academy, seeks to operate a full time, virtual charter school in New Mexico.
The state's public education commission, an elected body, in September rejected the academy's application by a 6-3 vote, after raising doubts about whether New Mexico state law allowed the panel to approve the online program. The commission questioned whether full-time online education could be used a substitute for in-person, student-to-teacher interaction, without approval from local boards of education.
But state law gives Skandera the power to overrule the commission, and that's what she did. In a decision made last week, she concluded that the panel had exceeded its authority, and that it did not have the right to reject a charter based on what it believed was a lack of clarity in the law.
In a written decision, Skandera argued that an opinion cited by the commission from a lawyer for the state education department, which had called into question the legality of virtual schools, was legally flawed, and had been contradicted by an opinion from a New Mexico assistant attorney general.
In addition, Skandera noted that staff from the state department of education's charter schools division had recommended approval of the application, with conditions. Those staff members had also given Connections Academy a strong ranking for securing community support, said Skandera, the state's secretary-designate of education.
"There is no statutory authority for denying a charter school application because the PEC 'feels,' without any factual or legal support, that there is ambiguity in the law that authorizes the creation of virtual charter schools," Skandera wrote in her decision.
New Mexico Connections Academy will be allowed to operate a school that serves students in grades 4-12 during its first year, the state schools chief said. It can apply to serve grades K-3 after that, if it so chooses.
In its application, Connections Academy said that between 50 percent and 60 percent of its students would come from traditional classrooms, at least 20 percent would be homeschoolers, and the rest would be private school students and those who are new to school. The company says that it serves 40,000 students in 21 states who are served by statewide, public virtual schools, as of 2011-12.
The approval comes as the decisions of Skandera and other state education officials around the country on virtual education are being questioned by In the Public Interest, a Washington-based organization that says it seeks to bring accountability and transparency to issues surrounding privatization and responsible contracting.
The organization published documents it obtained showing communications between Skandera and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who is a major voice on education policy in the states, particularly among conservatives. It notes that Connections Academy was a donor to a nationwide summit staged by the foundation, which included a gathering of Chiefs for Change, an organization of top state education officials whose policy agenda that includes expanded digital learning. Skandera is a member of that group.
In the Public Interest's documents attempt to detail the foundation's interest in promoting virtual education in New Mexico, and in other states. In the Public Interest alleges that Bush's group has "great influence" over Skandera and education-related legislation in New Mexico. (Skandera served as an education aide to Bush when he was governor of Florida.)
A spokesman for New Mexico's department of education, Larry Behrens, said the suggestion by In the Public Interest that Skandera's view of Connections Academy was shaped by any outside entity was off base.
He added that Chiefs for Change is an "internationally recognized organization of state chief officers that are known as leaders when it comes to education."
Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said Connections Academy had acted as a sponsor, along with other corporate and philanthropic entities, of foundation summits.
She said In the Public Interest's statements amounted to "leaps of logic" and painted a distorted picture.
"It is hardly a secret that the Foundation for Excellence in Education...is committed to school choice and openly offers its expertise to legislators and policy makers interested in improving their education systems," she said in an e-mail. "It's on our website."