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Judge’s Verdict Halts New Mexico Connections Academy Closure

By Cait Etherington
October 12, 2018
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Despite growing concerns about the performance of online charter schools, this week, a New Mexico state judge granted one troubled online school the green light to keep operating.  The trouble started earlier this year when the New Mexico Public Education Department ordered New Mexico Connections Academy, a Santa Fe-based online charter school, to close. This week, Judicial District Judge Francis Mathew issued a ruling that concluded the school did not need to shut down. According to Judge Mathew, the Public Education Department’s actions had violated state law and on this basis, he ordered the department to renew the virtual school’s charter.

While Judge Mathews’ ruling is clearly good news for supporters of the New Mexico Connections Academy, his ruling may also have an impact on virtual charters nationwide. Among other things, Judge Mathews’ ruling suggests that public education authorities, even state departments of education, may have less control over virtual charters than previously assumed.

The Scope of the Public Education Department’s Concerns

Like many online charters, New Mexico Connections Academy has routinely failed to meet state standards. Last April, after receiving two F grades on New Mexico’s school rating system, Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski announced that upon recommendation from the Public Education Commission, the New Mexico Connections Academy would be shut down as of June 30. Ruszkowski reached his conclusion only after the Public Education Commission voted 6-3 to reject a renewal application from the school.                           
At the time of Ruszkowski’s announcement, however, questions were already being raised about the legality of the proposed shutdown. Immediately following the announcement, former Republican State Senator Mark Boitan, a longstanding and vocal supporter of Connections Academy, said he might appeal the decision in state District Court. As he told the Santa Fe New Mexican last April, “It’s uncertain, but I think we do have a case.” As it turned out, Boitan and other supporters of Connections Academy did launch a lawsuit and did have a strong case–one strong enough to halt the school’s closure.

Why Judge Mathews Ruled in Favor of New Mexico Connections Academy

First in July, Judge Mathew gave Connections Academy the green light to operate for another semester while the lawsuit made its way through court. Then, in September, lawyers for New Mexico Connections Academy shared with Judge Mathew what they considered to be a series of missteps on the part of the Public Education Commission. As reported in the Santa Fe New Mexican on October 11, a key grievance was the fact the education department had only used one standard as a performance measure when they recommended that its charter not be renewed. Additionally, Connections Academy lawyers argued that following the school’s appeal of the closure order, the department had failed to decide the matter within a 60-day deadline.

While an attorney representing the Public Education Department argued that the real issue is the educational welfare of students, Judge Mathews did not buy their counter-argument. In a three-page ruling dated September 28, Judge Mathews  described the education department’s failure to renew Connections Academy’s charter as “arbitrary, capricious and otherwise not in accordance with law.”

For now, it is business as usual at New Mexico Connections Academy, although the legal scandal has negatively impacted the school’s enrollments numbers for the 2018-2019 school year. What the Public Education Commission does next is still uncertain. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the commission’s members planned to meet on October 12 to discuss how to proceed. Among the pressing items on the commission’s agenda will likely be their future control over virtual charter schools. After all, Judge Mathew’s ruling didn’t simply save one virtual charter from closure but also sent out a clear message to public school officials: Virtual charters may be eligible for public funding, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are under the full control of the state’s public education department.