Koua Xiong (copy)

Koua Xiong sounds out a word for first grade student O'Vann Homesly, 6, at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison as part of Schools of Hope, a program that seeks to shrink the racial achievement gap.

A smart person who pays attention to education in Madison asked me the other day whether a more than 3-year-old proposal to open a charter school aimed at helping poor, minority youth “has legs this time around.”

In the wake of the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black 19-year-old, attention is again focused on Madison’s racial achievement gap. Could that mean the School Board is now ready to take a chance on Madison Preparatory Academy?

As if. Madison school officials are happy to express deep concern about the achievement gap, but less happy to veer away from the traditional, non-charter, non-voucher, pro-teachers union model of public education that’s long failed to close it.

Madison Prep was a non-instrumentality charter school — meaning non-union shop and not directly overseen by the district — voted down by the School Board in December 2011.

It would have employed same-sex classrooms, an International Baccalaureate curriculum and longer school days, and required extensive parental involvement. Former Urban League of Greater Madison president Kaleem Caire, who championed the school, said it would have cost about $15 million over five years.

At the time, only two of seven board members supported it. One of them, James Howard, told this newspaper on Monday that he wouldn’t support it now because the district is facing at least a $12 million deficit.

Finances are always a consideration; they can also be an excuse. The district has cried poor at budget time for years, and yet somehow continued to find the money to, say, cover the full cost of union employees’ health insurance.

Board member Ed Hughes said he wouldn’t vote for Madison Prep because the district’s plan to address the gaps is better now.

“As compared to 2011, there is much more of a districtwide focus on addressing the achievement gap as well as improving outcomes for all students through an emphasis on a rigorous, coherent curriculum and great teaching in every classroom,” Hughes said.

The district’s shifting efforts to address the achievement gap is a story in itself.

After Madison Prep failed, then-Superintendent Daniel Nerad proposed a plan to address the gap that would have cost $105 million over five years. It was later whittled down to $49 million. Current Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s plan was advertised as costing nothing.

Called the “strategic framework,” it’s a back-to-basics approach that might prove effective — it’s shown some early, modest success — or might be more of the same.

Madison Prep would be a radical departure from sameness but would enroll only about 420 students when fully up and running. It’s a reasonable pilot project, in other words, not a takeover.

Caire has called on the board to revive Madison Prep but said he would not be the one to introduce it, which is probably good given that his somewhat mysterious departure from the Urban League couldn’t have been encouraging to his critics.

But Madison Prep was never about Caire. It was about trying something new with students for whom everything old has failed.

For Madison school officials, though, everything old rarely goes out of style.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


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