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Urban League of Greater Madison President Kaleem Caire gets a standing ovation after speaking to the Madison School Board Monday.  The board was taking public comment before voting on a proposal for the Madison Preparatory Academy charter school.

If nothing else, the Madison School Board knows now the passion with which the community holds its ideals about equal access to public education.

That the issue is close to the bone for middle-class African-Americans in Madison who see their sons and daughters struggling was clear after Monday night's meeting when the Madison School Board considered whether to fund Madison Preparatory Academy, a pair of no-nonsense, single-sex charter schools that would be a revolutionary response to the achievement gap between white and minority students that has haunted the district for decades.

What isn't clear is what will happen to the passion around the issue now that the board has rejected the proposal.

People nearly filled the 600-seat auditorium at Memorial High School as the meeting began. The enthusiasm was evident in the scores of impassioned arguments -- in favor of and against the Madison Prep proposal -- that were made to the School Board. Around midnight after more than four hours of public discussion, the board voted 5-2 against offering a contract to Madison Prep.

Afterward, Madison Prep architect Kaleem Caire, president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, rushed to the stage and spoke to the 50 or so audience members remaining.

"We're going to challenge them like they've never been challenged before," he said, vowing to file a complaint against the school district with the U.S. Department of Justice for discrimination on both gender and race.

He was aghast that the board rejected the proposal despite the support of the "most diverse crowd they've ever seen come together over something like this."

The community also must organize to oust the board members who did not support the proposal, he said. "We need to step up and show up -- we need people to run for this board of education."

What struck me during the hours of community comment was how committed and certain each side sounded as they argued whether Madison Prep could remedy disparities that have vexed many school districts and whose roots reach far beyond the school walls and deep into the community.

The arguments were personal and analytical and ideological. They were voiced by parents and teachers, grandparents and students, businessmen and community activists; by blacks and whites and Latinos.

Early in the evening, the room was practically pulsating with feeling. The audience was marked with swaths of the pale blue "I Support Madison Prep" T-shirts handed out by the Urban League, which developed the charter school proposal after extensive community discussions.

Some among them murmured and called out their agreement with the arguments raised in favor of Madison Prep. Caire shouted much of the auditorium to its feet as he left the microphone after urging the board to support the charter school proposal he has championed tirelessly.

There's no question in my mind after Monday's School Board meeting: Many African-American and Latino parents believe their children are given short shrift by the Madison schools, where the achievement gap has persisted for years despite administrative efforts to address it.

Frustration and anger over the gap in test scores and graduation rates that was the impetus behind the Madison Prep idea was voiced repeatedly.

"My male child has a better chance of going to prison than he does of going to college," said parent Vanika Mock. She challenged, too, the argument that the poor performance of minority students is a broader societal problem that the school district can't be expected to resolve. "How can a child get out of poverty if he can't get out of high school?" she snapped.

But sincere concerns also were voiced, by parents and teachers and community members, about whether the school's rigorous application progress would bar the most needy students, like homeless students, and over the spending of additional funds on the small number of students that Madison Prep would serve.

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Even among Madison Prep critics, there seemed to be widespread agreement that the school district is failing students of color. "It's undeniable the Madison School District has not done well by its African-American students," said School Board member Ed Hughes. That's a fact we as a district have to own."

But even as ardent an advocate as Hughes for acting to remedy a history of shortcomings voted against the proposal, saying he could not support it because it would violate the contract the district has with its teachers union.

The legal concerns around the teachers contract, added to School Board members' queasiness with a school that would be relatively beyond their authority, and which they figure would draw more middle-class students of color than poor ones, defeated the proposal in the end.

Critics of Madison Prep several times Monday urged continued attention to the achievement gap if the proposal failed and referred to a new plan that Superintendent Dan Nerad promised to unveil in January. They also expressed thanks to the Urban League for bringing the issue to the forefront.

But unspoken behind concerns about access voiced by Madison Prep critics seems to be the belief that only low-income students of color whose families are too overburdened to complete the application process or to come out to speak at a School Board hearing are being given short shrift by Madison schools.

The message Caire and his supporters were trying to send is that the problem goes deeper than that.

"Many families in this audience have young people in schools struggling to find their way," Caire said after the vote. "Even my own daughter tells me she doesn't feel she fits in."