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'Charter czar'

Gary Bennett was chosen in April 2016 to lead the new Office of Educational Opportunity at the University of Wisconsin System.

It can be easy to forget about the “charter czar.”

More than two years after his office was created within the University of Wisconsin System and more than a year after he was hired, the czar has yet to authorize a single charter school. His office doesn’t even have a website.

Education reformers can have some confidence he hasn’t just been loafing around these last 16 months, even as state education data suggest the popularity of charters could be waning.

The czar — also known as former legislative staffer and elementary school teacher Gary Bennett — said the website is slated to go up next week, as are two requests for proposals. One will be for a so-called recovery school aimed at letting teen addicts continue their education while getting treatment; the other will be for straight-up charter schools in either Milwaukee or Madison.

Bennett acknowledged getting familiar with the recovery school concept took some time. Among the funding models he’s looked at are those used by Hope Academy in Indianapolis and Insight Recovery School in Minnesota. To cover the $12,000 to $24,000 per-student cost generally seen at recovery schools, they have used city and district money, respectively, to augment state funding.

There have also been many “conversations with people in Milwaukee and Madison to say if they’re really ready to start a (traditional charter) school,” he said.

So far, he said there are maybe a dozen groups in Milwaukee looking to work with his office and maybe six to nine in Madison, a city that historically has been hostile toward charter schools, vouchers for private schools and other forms of education delivery that veer from traditional unionized schools under the control of elected school boards.

Wisconsin’s two largest cities are currently the statutory limits of his turf, although GOP Sen. Alberta Darling included a provision in a Senate budget proposal last week that would expand his turf statewide.

It’s a counterintuitive move when enrollment in charters and the total number of charters around the state have been flattening out in recent years.

The state Department of Public Instruction reports there were 237 charters in operation during the last school year. That’s down from 242 in 2015-16. Total enrollment was mostly flat, at around 44,000 in 2015-16 and 2014-15. That’s slightly lower than it was in 2013-14, when it was about 45,000.

Bennett pointed to a number of factors that might explain why the number of charter schools and students are leveling off. Milwaukee Public Schools has absorbed some of the more successful independent charter schools, and becoming part of public districts is what he thinks should be the logical end for good charters.

He also noted that the number of Wisconsin public school students has flattened out in general, and that charter authorizers are “being much more picky ... and I think that’s a good thing.”

By law, the recovery school is supposed to be up and running by fall 2018, but there is no similar deadline for the office’s first traditional charter.

With this much lead time, reformers should be able to expect success.

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