My support for charter schools began in the late ’90s when I served as head of the Family and Community Services Department for the City of Albuquerque, N.M. We were concerned with how to deal with several problems confronting us simultaneously: businesses complained about their difficulty in hiring a prepared and motivated labor force, crime linked to serious drug abuse was spiraling out of control, and unemployment among minority young adults was off the charts.
Our analysis linked all these back to a single distressing factor—one third of our city’s young people in their 20s had neither a high school diploma nor an equivalency certificate. Our official graduation rate was low, but even that sad figure missed a large cadre of youth who had not even made it to the point of registering for the ninth grade, so they weren’t counted in the measures used at the time.
Public schools did a very good job with those students who attended regularly and whose families were involved in their education. Our graduates went to some of the best colleges and did well there. The problem was that, each year, thousands of our children—our most critical natural resource—simply stopped attending and, once that happened, they rarely returned. Out-of-school and unemployed, they were trouble waiting to happen. The longer they stayed away, the more difficult it was to ever go back. Thousands of taxpayers’ dollars were essentially forfeited and wasted. Also, many thousands of additional expenditures would be needed to deal with the consequences of their decision to leave school.
We discussed how best to respond to the needs of this group. It was clear that there were many educators who had the skills and the willingness to work with discouraged students, if only we could find a framework to link them with the young people in need. But, mainstream public high schools were drastically limited in response. They were part of large systems that are not nimble. They were hesitant to bring dropouts back onto their campuses where they felt they might be a negative influence on younger students. They also had concerns about their schools’ overall ratings’ suffering when many under-achieving students were added to the mix.
New Mexico’s new charter school law offered a wonderful opportunity. Through it we have seen several charter schools develop that reach out to discouraged high schoolers and re-engage them in their educations—sometimes many years after they originally gave up. We even have a charter school at the Metropolitan Detention Center—our jail, which has helped inmates complete high school educations they have long-abandoned.
Simply stated, I support charter schools because I have seen how they can complement mainstream high schools and expand educational coverage so that all our young people can be prepared adequately for life in our society. No mission is more important for our future.
New Mexico State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino (D) has represented Albuquerque’s District 12 since 2005. He is the chair of the Senate Public Affairs Committee and the former executive director of HELP-New Mexico, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing a continuum of services to migrant families, self-employed farmers, and ranchers, low-income families, abused and neglected children, senior citizens, people with disabilities and disadvantaged youth.
Gerald, well written, and great case. O course, all charter schools have an "inertia" to become like all other schools (public), it is the commitment of founders and leaders to prevent that from happening.