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In 1999 New Mexico added another official state symbol to the road runner and the yucca flower. It adopted an official state question: “Red or Green?” This state symbol is not just a question. It is a choice. Because choice isn’t just a preference for New Mexicans; it is a strongly held value.
Where New Mexicans did not have any choice until 1995 was in free schooling for their children. Until 1995 the only options for free education were the traditional public school dictated by where they lived or an annual request to transfer to a school outside of their attendance area. But in 1995 the first charter school opened in New Mexico giving families choice in free public education.
While there are a lot of misunderstandings about charter schools in New Mexico the law is clear. Under the state statute that allows for charter schools, they are required to be both public and secular. Under this law, as well as many others both state and federal, charter schools are also required to serve the needs of special education students, English language learners, homeless students and much more in the same way a traditional public school does.
But perhaps most relevant to the value of choice is that under state law no charter school may charge tuition or have admissions requirements that would not be allowed for a traditional public school. In a state that consistently ranks among the poorest in the country, charter schools offer the value of much-needed free educational opportunities. And so the value of school choice for New Mexicans is not just a moral one; it is a monetary one.
Sara Saint-Hogan a charter school parent says she chose a charter school for her son because he “struggles with certain subjects, but doesn’t quite meet the requirements for a learning disability.” Adding, “I think at a traditional [public] school, he wouldn’t be able to get the individualized instruction he needs to succeed.” Charter School parent Katy Sanchez echoes this saying, “Having options … of charter schools is so vital for families, as they can find something to meet the needs of their children on multiple different levels along with education.”
According to Public Charter Schools of New Mexico, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and advocating for New Mexico charter schools and families, there are now 97 charter schools in New Mexico with over 26,000 of New Mexico’s kids attending them.
But the value of choice—both monetary and moral—serves not just students and families. It also serves school staff, because charter schools provide employment choices for them.
Lori Bachman has worked in both traditional public schools as well as charter schools and currently serves as the head administrator of Coral Community Charter School in Albuquerque’s International District. When asked why choice is important to her as an educational leader, she says, “I choose to work in a charter school because it definitely removes a lot of the barriers to creating a culture of excellence. Because student enrollment is never guaranteed, it is especially important for charter schools to be excellent—to offer something extra special and to attract and keep families in the school community.”
One significant way in which charter schools are different from traditional public schools is that a charter school may achieve the excellence Ms. Bachman speaks of by choosing its own curriculum and pedagogy; meaning a student’s day could be filled with project-based learning like building robots or service learning like internships rather than traditional “seat time.”
And that difference is also one reasons Ms. Saint-Hogan not only has a son attending a charter school, she also teaches at one. Her school has a pedagogical model of experiential education. Having taught at both traditional public schools and charter schools, she says that she chose a charter school, Root and Wings Community School in Questa, because “They offer more flexibility in teaching.” She added that, “Choice is very important to me, because not all kids do well in a traditional public school. I feel with charter schools, more of our kids will be able to access ways of learning that suit them best and will learn to succeed academically, as well as socially.”
Another teacher, Dolores Trujillo of Technology Leadership High School, a charter school with a project-based learning pedagogical model, has also taught at traditional public schools. She says that, as opposed to traditional public schools, “Charter schools offer an opportunity for teachers to step outside of traditional teaching and reach students at their level.”
Charter schools also provide career choices not just for educators but also for many others in New Mexico. Sarah Piña, chief financial officer of North Valley Academy Charter School, spoke on the choice charter schools provide for her professionally, saying, “For the last ten years, I have worked as a charter school business manager. Because charter schools are on a five-year renewal cycle, the increased instructional and financial accountability really inspires me to generate innovative ideas on how funds can be most impactful and support the school’s mission.” In addition, she said, “I do not think I would have that direct connection to students and staff at a big district, so school choice definitely offers an alternative that keeps me engaged and invested in my career.”
Native New Mexican and charter school parent Ms. Sanchez acknowledges this value of choice, saying that, “Empowering families and communities to have the choice of schools is important to continue quality education to better the future of our state—the children.”
Eight years after New Mexico adopted its official state question, it adopted the official state answer to it: “Red and green or Christmas.” A choice. Showing choice to be so valued by New Mexicans that it holds not just one, but two positions as a symbol of the state itself.
*Abby Lewis is an education attorney from Albuquerque and Co-owner of The Paper. She provides legal services to Technology Leadership High School, North Valley Academy Charter School, and Coral Community Charter School.