It is easy to look at the upcoming Spring elections and focus solely on the potential recall of Gov. Scott Walker. It has become a national issue, and millions of dollars from both Wisconsin and out-of-state are being thrown into the election. But there is another important choice to make on the ballot: two candidates for Madison school board representatives.
While most school district elections are fairly boring and forgettable, this year's vote could help seal the fate of Madison Preparatory Academy. The proposed charter school is aimed at helping lower-income students gain access to college-prep courses. It is championed by Urban League of Greater Madison President Kaleem Caire, but has not gained his level of enthusiasm in the rest of the city. Voters should support Mary Burke and Nichelle Nichols who have been least adversarial toward the school.
There are obvious concerns with the school's plan. It is intended to offer single-gendered classrooms and eligibility criteria will mainly select minority students for enrollment. This could rob students of experiences of learning with people of different backgrounds, which hurts diversity. It is also a tax payer supported school with less oversight than a traditional school. Money could be wasted with no real promise of returns. Also, trying to use non-union teachers could potentially harm school district labor contracts.
The contract issue shouldn't have been one. The school district should have written contracts that allow for teacher's unions to have a monopoly on traditional public schools, but should have let charter schools choose their own employees. Teacher union contracts protect teachers but create rigid employment structures for schools' administrators. They cannot hire and fire teachers as easily and need to follow strict rules on seniority and level of schooling-both attributes do not always lead to the best teachers.
The other two issues are general concerns for education in general, but should not factor as much for the Madison School District. Diversity should thrive in schools; peers and teachers function best when ideas are challenged. If this school were to open, most of its students would be minorities. This would take them out of schools where they interact with majority students. It could be seen as segregation.
But if you look at the low graduation rate of Madison's minority-especially male students-you have to wonder if they are already segregated in their public high schools. There is just above a 60 percent graduation rate for African-American students in Wisconsin schools for the 2009-2010 class, while less than half of African-American Madison students graduated in the same time period. These numbers don't just suggest that the district is failing those students-it proves it. According to the released information from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, "economically disadvantaged" students graduated at a 71.7 percent rate, 18.9 percent below students who are "not economically disadvantaged."
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If the system is broken, try to fix it. This is exactly what Madison Preparatory Academy is trying to do-reach out to economically disadvantaged Wisconsin students and put them on track to college.
Dissent for the school was also leveled at the higher cost and lack of transparency (read: control) over the school. When school board members voted against the school, this was of top concern. It is the school board's job to look after the well-being of the district, including its finances. The fear of allowing a pseudo-private charter school into the district has to give them nightmares.
But if oversight is a concern, it is ironic that the district feels this way since it spends $13,493 per-pupil and has the paltry graduation rates I listed earlier.
Of course, money is not the only determining factor for educational success. Students must be engaged, parents must be involved and teachers need to understand when students need an extra push. The charter school boasts plans that would accomplish this. From longer school hours to meeting more often with parents, Madison Prep would offer students with opportunities that the school district has a hard time providing.
This is not to say that the charter school should be built and the rest of the public schools should remain the same. They should look at reforms as well, including adopting President Obama's call for the drop-out age being raised to 18 instead of 17.
But in the meantime, the Madison School District should begin to embrace the charter school to provide a better education for the students it is failing in the city.
Matt Beaty is a junior majoring in math and computer science. Please tweet feedback to @daily cardinal or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated: Feb 19, Burke and Nichelle revoked their absolute support for the charter school in December. The article was changed to correct their views.
Kate Krebs is a columnist for The Daily Cardinal. She is majoring in English and Spanish.