N.M. will allow online school

SANTA FE – New Mexico education chief Hanna Skandera overruled the state Public Education Commission this week, and will allow a new all-online charter school to open in the fall.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that the school will be called New Mexico Connections Academy and will contract with the online, for-profit curriculum company Connections Academy. The school aims to serve students in grades K-12 from around the state.

Skandera’s decision Wednesday came as a national nonprofit, In the Public Interest, released thousands of emails between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s education foundation and policymakers in several states, including New Mexico.

Connections Academy is one of several online education companies that donates money to Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization Skandera turns to for advice on reform initiatives.

The school proposal was submitted by Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation. But Gessing emphasized that the school is not a project of the foundation, which advocates for free markets and limited government.

Public Education Department spokesman Larry Behrens said Skandera approved the charter on its merits.

“The promise of virtual learning has the potential to offer fantastic options for thousands of New Mexican students. For those students who are best served by this option, virtual learning can offer instruction they might otherwise go without while serving to better prepare them for the 21st century,” Behrens said in a written statement.

The Public Education Commission was conservative with its approval of new charters last year, approving one new charter out of nine applications. The 10 members of that commission are elected by regional districts.

The emails released Wednesday show Bush’s foundation has given information and expertise to state leaders who back a certain set of reforms, including A-F grades for schools, retention of third-graders whose test scores show they can’t read at grade level and increased support for virtual schooling.

Included in the emails are exchanges between Skandera and Mary Laura Bragg, Foundation for Excellence in Education’s policy director of state implementation. In one exchange from 2011, Skandera asked whether Bragg would advise on a literacy initiative, and Bragg wrote back, “I’m at your beck and call.” The emails also show Skandera seeking advice from Christy Hovanetz, a senior policy fellow at the foundation, about the language of proposed education reform bills.

Max Bartlett, who heads Albuquerque Interfaith’s education committee, said he is disappointed with Skandera’s decision.

“Virtual learning should be used to supplement, not replace, our public schools,” he said. “We particularly don’t want to see our public schools being privatized where we have out-of-state, for-profit corporations that are essentially undermining our public schools.”