CharterFolk Contributor Matthew Pahl – Charter Schools in New Mexico: A Triumphant Evolution

Greetings, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Matthew Pahl, the Executive Director of Public Charter Schools of New Mexico.

Matthew Pahl, the Executive Director of Public Charter Schools of New Mexico

I provide Matthew’s brief bio below.

Matthew Pahl is the Executive Director of Public Charter Schools of New Mexico. He has focused his career with education transformation in New Mexico since 2005, which began as a first-grade teacher and included positions with the state Legislature and as the Policy Director at the Public Education Department. Matthew believes education is the fundamental tool to achieving equity in our country and is interested in how varied academic programs and organizational structures can help improve public educational experiences for all. He received his B.A. in History from St. John’s University in Minnesota and a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Southern California.

Charter Schools in New Mexico: A Triumphant Evolution

New Mexico is rooted in a diverse set of communities and New Mexico charter schools have been leveraged as a mechanism for community empowerment. They provide an opportunity for individual communities to look at their local educational landscape and ask, “What is missing in our community? What is possible for our children if we do something different?”. Charter schools in New Mexico provide for those communities to address those questions, by establishing a school centered on a mission that is locally relevant. Many communities across the state have jumped at this opportunity, where 100 charter schools are located across 28 communities and serve 30,000 students. Each one of those schools is unique and contributes to our charter movement’s success in providing community-driven innovation that is in the best interests of students. It wasn’t always this way, though. The New Mexico story unfolds in three phases, each representing a part in the evolution of charter schools in the Land of Enchantment toward something. In the vast landscape of educational reform, New Mexico’s charter schools have traversed a distinctive and transformative journey, encapsulating the essence of a diverse charter school movement, borne out of their communities.

In the early days of the charter school movement in New Mexico, the educational terrain resembled the untamed wilderness of the state. Charter schools started in the 1990’s with a cautious approach as district conversion schools. In the early 2000’s Governor Bill Richardson and the New Mexico State Legislature leapt into the charter movement. During this era, charter schoolswere being established to fulfill the needs of the community and reveled in an unprecedented degree of operational freedom. 

The educational experimentation from this era was largely fruitful. Albuquerque’s South Valley created charter schools that served as the state’s first community schools with wrap-around services and a focus on social emotional learning. Drop-out re-engagement charter schools were also created to meet the needs of communities with chronically low graduation rates and provided an option for students that had been failed by the public education system. Charter schools in Jemez Pueblo showed that the charter school model could empower tribal communities by establishing schools that truly integrated their language and culture. In rural areas, blended learning programs in charter schools allowed students from great distances to attend a school that would otherwise not be available to them in their home communities. Last but not least, charter schools were established in a number of communities that focused on college preparation and had results commensurate with competitive private schools. Each of these models and a number of others have proven influential. They started as experiments. Many are now pushed as fashionable education policy statewide.  

Communities were truly empowered with the charter school act and community driven innovation continued through the early 2000s and 2010s. This era was also marked by limited oversight. The lack of standardized oversight allowed some schools to falter, raising questions about the viability and sustainability of the charter school model. Student results confirmed these doubts. A 2013 report from the Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charter schools in New Mexico had significant negative effects on students’ ability to read and do math. 

There was a pressing need for accountability and oversight. 

By the 2010s, charter schools had garnered a reputation, in Santa Fe policy circles, as an experiment gone awry. A multi-million dollar fraud and embezzlement case at one charter school served as a rallying point for this perspective. Recognizing the need for control and accountability, the Public Education Department began to think differently about their role regarding charter schools and worked to rein in the perceived chaos of the charter school landscape while delivering on the promise of providing high-quality public education options. Empowered by a new law that modernized the charter school movement with charter contracts, accountability was formalized in this period with the state authorizer, the Public Education Commission (PEC). The PEC was ready and willing to implement such measures, which started a new era of accountability.

This was a positive shift for public school choice in the state. Goals for schools were rooted in student outcomes and became the norm amongst charter schools. Schools began to deepen the connection between their mission and student outcomes. However, overzealous site visits from Department staff sometimes backfired, and the PEC would often let politics be the focal point of authorizing decisions rather than charter contracts. This approach lacked the crucial element of transparency and due process. The result was a number of authorizer decisions that were overturned in the court via the appeals process. During this period, charter schools found themselves burdened by a stringent code that was unfamiliar to many schools. The pendulum had swung from unbridled freedom to a rigorous, if unclear, bar.

During this period, a tranche of chronically low-performing charter schools were closed. The number of charter schools in the state decreased from 105 in 2014 to 95 schools in 2019. New charter schools opened at a much slower pace and met more rigorous requirements for an approved opening. Despite these accountability changes, perceptions of public charter schools in the state did not improve, and dangerous proposals were considered by the state legislature to hurt the charter movement. Critically, Governor Susanna Martinez vetoed legislation that would have negatively impacted charter schools during her term, protecting funding and taking a clear stance on a proposed charter school moratorium. By the end of her second and final term as Governor, public charter schools in New Mexico were excelling and growing throughout the transition authorizers were making.

The final phase of the New Mexico charter saga is marked by transparent accountability measures, understood by both authorizers and schools. Authorizers are far from perfect, but now value accountability and also keep in mind what due process should look like. New Mexico’s charter school system, who was shocked at initial steps toward accountability, now understands it as a critical part of the movement. New Mexico’s charter movement has now evolved into a state with appropriate and transparent accountability, while maintaining itself as a community empowerment mechanism. The oversight process, once shrouded in bureaucratic obscurity, now provides more clarity, allowing schools to know their status with their authorizer at any time.

New Mexico charter schools stand as living proof that an accountable, locally tailored educational approach can lead to unparalleled success for students. Today, charter schools in the state consistently outperform traditional district schools. A 2023 report from CREDO found New Mexico charter schools provided the equivalent 11 additional days of instruction in reading and 7 additional days of instruction in mathematics compared to traditional district schools. The key to this success lies in the transparent accountability measures implemented by authorizers. The public sees this as well. In a poll conducted by Research and Polling of 500 New Mexico residents this Fall, 76% of residents across the state found that public charter schools were helping to improve education in the state. Further, 74% support the establishment of more public charter schools in their community or across the state. From pioneering educational programs and policies that are all the rage now, to the growing pains through the advent of accountability, New Mexico’s charter sector has culminated in a system that values transparency, community-driven education, and student success.

Over two decades in, the charter school movement in New Mexico has created stable institutions that have become an integral part of their respective communities, each embodying a unique model tailored to meet the specific needs of the population it serves. This diversity in our approach, coupled with transparent accountability, has given rise to a flourishing educational ecosystem.