Is the conservative Rio Grande Foundation acting as a front to violate New Mexico law?

By law, for-profit companies cannot manage charter schools in New Mexico. The law clearly state, “the governing body shall not contract with a for-profit entity for the management of the charter school.” (NMSA 1978 22-8B-4R).

As ISPAC previously reported, an investigative series by the Miami Herald on Florida charter schools found that for-profit management companies receive as much as 70% of a charter school’s entire operating budget. The money that pays these for-profit companies is siphoned away from local public school budgets that might otherwise be used to pay for teacher salaries, books, and other supplies.

The recent actions of Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, raise serious red flags. Among the concerns is if the Rio Grande Foundation is attempting to skirt the law by serving as a front to a for-profit management company in order to operate charter schools here in New Mexico.

Gessing recently submitted notices of intent to start four “virtual” charter schools under the banner of New Mexico Connections Academy.

A non-publicly operated charter school needs a non-profit entity designated as management. The Rio Grande Foundation has taken on that role. The New Mexico Connections Academy and the Rio Grande Foundation even share the same P.O. Box.

Gessing is listed as the applicant on behalf of the charter schools and describes his experience to operate a charter school as “President/Parent/Advocate for Choice in Education”. What is lacking is his experience in the area of school administration.

Doug Turner, a Rio Grande Foundation board member, is an advertising executive and one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate. He also happens to be the board President of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools.

The Rio Grande Foundation’s role in the application process is clear. But who is really going to run the school? Gessing, Turner, and the other board members have no relevant experience.

New Mexico Connections Academy “has plans to engage Connections Academy of New Mexico, LLC an operating affiliate of Connections Education LLC…for curriculum, technology, and other services under the terms of the professional services agreement (also known as a management contract).”

Connections Education LLC is the second largest for-profit manager of “virtual” charter schools in the country, second only to K12Inc. Connections is owned by Pearson Education, a British company that is one of the largest for-profit providers in the country of “educational materials, technologies and assessments”.

In 2011, Pearson’s North American Education Division made $4.03 billion in revenue with a net profit of $771 million dollars.

On the notice of intent, Gessing listed two “advisors”. One is a lobbyist working for Pearson Education and the other a lobbyist working for Connections Education.

It appears evident that New Mexico Connections Academy will be run by a for-profit management company in an apparent violation of state law.

An important question to be asked is if the Rio Grande Foundation received money from Connections Education/Connections Academy to assist the for-profit company in gaining access into the New Mexico education market.

The Rio Grande Foundation conceals its sources of funding.  In the past, the Rio Grande Foundation has received funding from shadowy privatization groups such as the Cato Institute and the State Policy Network, two sponsors of the American Legislative Exchange Council (“ALEC”).  ALEC is a heavy force behind the push to hand private companies our tax dollars.

Connections Education is a privately held company that does not disclose how it spends its money either. Based upon actions by the Pearson operated non-profit foundation, the Rio Grande Foundation may be getting funding from Connections or Pearson for providing them with a toehold in New Mexico.

Pearson’s foundation is experienced with this kind of underhanded deal.  They are currently under investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office for allegations of influence pedaling and bribery.

Connections has been in the front lines of moving taxpayer dollars out of neighborhood schools and into the hands of private companies. Mickey Revenaugh, the vice president and co-founder of Connections Academy, was the co-chair of the ALEC Education Task Force.  Back in June 2004, Revenaugh and officers from K12Inc, co-wrote ALEC’s model virtual school bill which is backed by Governor Susana Martinez and her Public Education Secretary Designate, Hanna Skandera.

Connections operates a slew of “virtual” charter schools in which the students do not attend neighborhood schools, but rather take classes by computer from their homes. This is the next possible violation of New Mexico state law.

According to New Mexico law, “a charter school shall be nonsectarian, nonreligious and non-home based public school.” (NMSA 1978 22-8B-4J)

As part of its sales pitch, Connections offers to provide the technology necessary for elementary school kids to work from home. That cost to them is pennies compared to the profit they make from public education dollars.

Connections makes even more money by ensuring that any school they operate also pays for its curriculum and testing materials.

But how effective is this “virtual” home schooling?

Connections Academy operates Texas Connections Academy, which is described as “a for-profit company that contracts with the Houston Independent School District to run the cyber-academy.

Texas Connections Academy students performed 20% BELOW the state average on standardized tests. In addition to being illegal in New Mexico, there is little evidence that kids do any better in a “virtual” home school setting.

The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado just released a major study on full-time virtual academies. The study labeled these programs “a convergence of home schooling, charter schools and online content providers.”

The study found that there is no reliable data to show that these full-time “virtual” academies produce better results than neighborhood schools. They do, however, siphon off valuable resources from local public schools.

These for-profit management companies are turning our kids into lab rats using unproven education approaches for the sole purpose of making a lot of money.

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