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Whose school is it anyway? Under proposal, taxpayers could pay for experimental charter schools

Whose school is it anyway? Under proposal, taxpayers could pay for experimental charter schools

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Kaleem Caire has spent much of the last year making a passionate, personal and controversial pitch for a publicly funded male-only charter school called Madison Preparatory that would operate independently of the Madison Metropolitan School District. It aims to serve primarily minority boys in grades six through 12 and their families.

Caire, a Madison native and the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, has mustered a great deal of community support by highlighting the struggles of and grim statistics surrounding black and Hispanic young boys and men in Dane County, and through telling his own powerful story of underachievement in Madison’s public schools.

“I learned about racism and lower expectations for minority kids when I arrived the first day at Cherokee Middle School, and all the black boys and a few other minorities sat at tables in the back. I was assigned to remedial math, and even when I showed the teacher I already knew how to do those worksheets, that’s where I was stuck,” Caire says.

With its emphasis on discipline, family involvement, preppy-looking uniforms and a non-negotiable stance on being a union-free school, Caire’s proposal for the boys-only middle and high school has won hundreds of enthusiastic supporters, including a number of prominent conservatives who, surprisingly, don’t seem particularly troubled by the school’s price tag.

Madison Prep backers have asked the Madison School District for about $14,500 per student for the 120 students expected to attend in the 2012-13 inaugural year, adding equivalent amounts for 60 more students each year until the school has a full enrollment of middle and high school classes. They say the district would save millions each year by not having to educate those pupils who will attend Madison Prep. But Madison district officials say they would save far less than that, estimating savings of only about $5,500 per student, once school staffing and operational costs throughout the district are figured in. That means, says Erik Kass, assistant superintendent for business services, Madison taxpayers would end up subsidizing Madison Prep about $9,000 per student annually or about $10 million over the next five years. And that would mean cuts to programs and services at other schools, say district officials.

So while a majority of Madison School Board members say they are open to or intrigued by the prospect of Madison Prep, these costs make them nervous and could prove to be a major stumbling block when the district is asked to give final approval in the fall.

In the past, School Board denial of a charter agreement signaled the end of the line for a project. But a new GOP-backed piece of legislation creating a state authorizing board for charters could change that. In fact, it would upend Wisconsin’s long tradition of local control of schools, where authority rests primarily with school board officials elected by local taxpayers.

Supporters say that’s just what is needed to create new opportunities for learning in the state’s troubled school systems.

But critics say loss of such control, combined with Gov. Scott Walker’s massive budget cuts to schools, plus 18 years of strict revenue limits, would lead to financial ruin for some public school districts. They claim the legislation is unfair because it provides public money from the state’s general aid fund — at $7,775 per student — to start new independent charter schools, but eliminates any oversight role by locally elected school officials. The flow of money for these new charters would reduce the pot of money remaining for the states’ existing schools during already fiscally challenging times.

Currently, Wisconsin law allows school boards to establish charters with individuals, groups, businesses or governmental bodies, and also permits the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside, the city of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Area Technical College to authorize charters. The proposed new state board would have the power to authorize charters anywhere in Wisconsin, even in communities where the local school board has turned down a proposal. 

Under Senate Bill 22, sponsored by Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, the Charter School Authorizing Board would comprise appointees chosen by the governor and the speakers of the Senate and Assembly.

The proposal is part of a larger “school choice” movement that’s being pushed by an unusual coalition of mainstream Republicans, tea party members and liberal school reformers who say charter “laboratories of innovation” compete with conventional public schools, helping to improve them, while also giving dissatisfied families educational options. Other aspects of the choice agenda include expanding vouchers and tax credits to permit more students to attend private schools at public expense.

Caire testified at length on behalf of Darling’s bill at a Senate Education Committee public hearing in March that lasted more than 10 hours.

He says innovative schools like Madison Prep that confront Wisconsin’s worst-in-the-nation black/white student achievement gap should be encouraged.

“Come on,” he says, shaking his head impatiently. “Nothing has changed in these terrible educational outcomes in Madison for our kids in 10, 20, 30 years. We can’t wait for another generation to get it right.”

•    •    •    •

School expert and education historian Diane Ravitch, a prominent former school reformer herself, argues that the long-term charter record on student achievement is unimpressive, and that the schools actually do little more than skim off the most motivated students while paying administrators and charter development companies big bucks.

Opinions in Wisconsin regarding charters, their value and how they need to be managed, are mixed.

John Gee, legislative policy director for the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association and former executive director of the group, is, needless to say, a fan.

“You simply can’t get true innovation without autonomy,” he says, arguing that Wisconsin has been far too cautious in its approach that favors charter approval through existing school organizations.

Arizona, for example, has been called the “Wild West of Charters” for its 20-year, wide-open embrace of charters in all forms. The state enrolls about 10 percent of its students in more than 500 charter schools supported by generous public funding, independent management and no teacher union contracts. The charters vary widely in type, approach and quality, with some among the best schools in the nation. But there are plenty of misfires, too. A Stanford University research institute study in 2009 found that student achievement in Arizona charters didn’t measure up to student achievement in the state’s traditional public schools. Backers dispute the findings and the schools remain a popular option with parents. 

In announcing the introduction of her bill, which she is co-authoring with state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, Darling, a former teacher, said “State law has thrown unnecessary roadblocks in the path of some charter school proposals. This bill will help charter schools educate more children.”

But opponents of a state authorizing board for charters argue that Wisconsin’s current system for approving charter schools is working.

They say that local oversight has helped prevent the kind of charter school scandals and fraud that have plagued other states because the schools, and their finances, are closely observed in their home communities. They say the push for more charters is unnecessary because the state is already a national leader, with more than 200 charter schools now established and another 28 coming online in the fall. And they add that making such a move when the state is already deep in a budget crisis is ill-advised. Public school districts are already taking about a $900 million hit in state aid.

“One of the department’s chief concerns is that this bill is a blank check made out to independent charter schools by local school districts,” Michael Thompson, deputy state superintendent of schools, testified at the March 23 hearing on Darling’s proposal.

Spring Green parent Lisa Scofield, who is also a teacher in the River Valley School District, agrees, adding that SB 22 is particularly disastrous for hard-hit rural districts like hers where enrollment and state aid are already in steep decline due to demographic changes.

“This is about removing local control and placing even greater financial burdens on districts that are barely able to survive financially now,” she says in an interview. “For students and for families in districts like ours, it’s absurd to say that this legislation provides us with more choices. Instead it’s helping destroy our public schools.”

Dan Rossmiller, legislative liaison for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, also testified in opposition to SB 22 at the public hearing. He is concerned not just about the specifics of the bill, but about the fact that it and other initiatives — including Walker’s curtailment of collective bargaining rights for public workers, a proposed “report card for schools,” and bills that promote the expansion of voucher programs — are not homegrown.

“I do have some concerns with the sense that there is a lot of legislation being brought forward that’s borrowed whole cloth from other states,” he says.

•    •    •    •

In general, Americans are wary about entrusting education to government entities, especially those from far away places.

That’s according to William Reese, a noted historian of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who describes the tradition of pioneer communities where local citizens built schools to teach their children, hired teachers and established the standards for what would be taught.

A long history of local control of schools through elected, nonpartisan boards of education is particularly ingrained in Wisconsin, according to Rossmiller. “Traditionally, we have given local voters, and state voters, a lot of control over how our schools in Wisconsin operate,” he says.

Locally elected school board members answer to parents and taxpayers in overseeing each school district’s overall direction: They hire superintendents to run the daily business of the schools, and fire them when they don’t like the job they are doing. Board members are ultimately accountable for public school budgets, although since 1993 their autonomy has been curtailed by state-imposed revenue limits. This year, Walker’s budget further reduces school spending limits in individual districts by 5.5 percent.

Unlike other states, Wisconsin has no appointed statewide board of education. Instead, state school policy is directed and interpreted by an elected, nonpartisan state superintendent of schools.

The state has 424 independent Wisconsin school districts, each with its own board and superintendent. By contrast, Florida school districts are organized through 67 counties.

Rossmiller says Wisconsin has taken a typically individualistic approach in establishing 4-year-old kindergarten, district by district, and in dealing with the proposed end to collective bargaining.

“Each district reflects its own community and the board members make decisions that are responsive to their constituents,” he says, adding that what works in one place may not be appropriate somewhere else.

That record of independent, local decision-making extends to the establishment of charter schools. What all districts outside of Milwaukee and Racine have in common is that they only authorize charters through their local school boards.

For 20 years Milwaukee has seen more public charter and voucher school programs than any city in the country. The roster includes independent charter schools that have been authorized through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the city of Milwaukee, as well as through the Milwaukee School Board.

Ninety miles west, the state’s second-largest district has tended to take a go-slow approach toward charters, especially under former Madison Superintendent Art Rainwater, who was skeptical about the advantages charters are purported to bring to students and school districts.

During his tenure, several charter proposals were rejected but the Madison School Board ultimately overrode his administration’s objections and approved Nuestro Mundo, a dual-language immersion school that has proven very successful.

Superintendent Daniel Nerad and the current board seem more open to charters. A proposal for Badger Rock Middle School, a charter that emphasizes hands-on learning with an environmental emphasis, received final approval from the board last fall and will open to students for the next school year.

The school district’s embrace of charters is certainly being tested by the Madison Preparatory proposal, which falls outside of any model in Wisconsin. Even for board members who can get past concerns about whether public schools should be segregated by gender or the potential legal challenges to a school that won’t conform to union contracts, there are big concerns about cost — and about fairness.

“I support the concept and acknowledge that we really have not made progress in the way we deal with the achievement tap and our families of color. I can’t argue with that,” say board member Lucy Mathiak.

“But the issue I’ll be watching with Madison Prep, like I’m watching with Badger Rock, is the budget. I need to see a proposal that functions within what we do for our other schools. That’s what it boils down to,” she says.

•    •    •    •

Badger Rock Middle School sailed through the charter approval process with enthusiastic support from the School Board and the administration from the outset.

The school will open in September, serving its inaugural class of 50 sixth-graders at a site south of the Beltline that backers intend to make a model of community-based urban agriculture. Coordinators for the project worked closely with the district and other community partners since the notion was first floated two years ago. They say they have no problem operating under the district’s auspices, and, in fact, welcome the collaboration.

But there have been compromises. Given the budget constraints imposed by the district, which include operating within the district’s union contract, the school’s original intention to be a year-round learning community has been dropped.

That’s the kind of trade-off charter school purists argue damages innovative experimentation, creating what they call dismissively “charters lite.”

Sarah Toce, executive director of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, says passing SB 22 and its companion bill in the Assembly, AB 110, will bring benefits to charter schools and the families they serve.

“A state authorizing board for independent charter schools is a huge advantage because it helps ensure much greater autonomy for the charters. If they’re going to reach their potential for innovation, they need that freedom,” she says.

Frequently, as Caire talks about the Urban League’s Madison Prep proposal, he also emphasizes the school’s requirement for freedom from the district’s regular mandates and policies.

He’s been emphatic from the beginning that this school, unlike Badger Rock or Nuestro Mundo, must operate on a path separate from the rest of the district. Schools like this are called “non-instrumentalities” which means the school’s contract with staff, curriculum and management, including finances, are handled by the school itself, not the district. And, instead of oversight by the School Board, Madison Prep would have its own nonprofit board, associated with the Urban League.

There are several parts of the scenario that trouble Madison School Board member Ed Hughes.

He’s brought his concerns up at board meetings, which has sparked some sharp exchanges with Caire. And he’s written about them on his School Blog.

“The non-instrumentality aspect of the Madison Prep proposal is troubling. The point isn’t that teachers ... need not be members of MTI, our teachers union. That doesn’t really bother me ... The point is that the district is surrendering controls over the operations of one of its schools, with not much promised in the way of accountability measures ... It is not reassuring that the planning grant application states this: “The Urban League will seek waivers for all MMSD Board of Education policies except those relating to student safety and health.”

Hughes also says he is concerned about signing a five-year contract with the Urban League that he says is likely to obligate the district to more than $10 million in additional spending over those five years.

“That’s certainly enough to give one pause,” he notes.

Caire is emphatic that a school with the characteristics of Madison Prep, which is based on a design he initially developed for implementation in three communities in the Washington, D.C., area several years ago, will get it right when it comes to improving the prospects for Madison’s minority boys and, in years to follow, the prospects of minority girls, too, who would be in line for a school of their own once Madison Prep gets under way.

The notion of reducing the achievement gap is so important, especially given Madison’s poor record, it should outweigh other concerns, Caire believes.

“We’re definitely planning for Madison Prep as a local public charter school that’s part of the district. That’s what we’d like. But we will go forward any way we can,” he says.

So if the School Board ultimately nixes final approval for Madison Prep, the project could still become an independent reality if Darling’s bill passes, and if the authorizing board of political appointees gives the project a green light.

Of course, the $7,775 per pupil that Madison Prep would receive under that scenario is not the $14,500 the Urban League says it needs to operate. But if it becomes a totally independent entity, Madison Prep would also be eligible for federal funds for a variety of entitlement programs to support its students. And, there are likely to be plenty of opportunities for fundraising, both locally and among well-funded national organizations that may find Madison Prep’s unusual approach particularly appealing. 

One of the slogans Caire and the Urban League’s development team have used throughout the planning process for Madison Prep is “Whatever it takes.”

“If the civil rights movement would have waited to have local votes to move ahead, it would never have happened,” he says.

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