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School Choice Rally 1-04262013141509

Students at Milwaukee's Academy of Excellence charter school attend a rally for supporters of Wisconsin's School Choice program gather at La Casa de Esperanza in Waukesha, Wis. Thursday, April 25, 2013. John Hart - State Journal

The dean of the School of Education at the state’s flagship university dismissed the notion of university-authorized charter schools this week while drawing an unusual comparison between PK-12 education and college.

“I wouldn’t want local school districts to be granting undergraduate and graduate degrees,” Julie Underwood told this newspaper when asked about a legislative proposal that would expand the ability of UW System campuses to authorize charter schools. “Similarly, I don’t think universities should authorize and manage PK-12 schools. It is not what we do best. It is not within our primary mission.”

It’s a sentiment indicative of how some education advocates can seem more interested in who controls public education than in whether it’s good for kids.

I wouldn’t want local school districts granting college degrees, either, because public schools don’t know enough college curricula to be granting them.

College education professors, though, should know more than enough about what to teach in public schools and how best to teach it. College is where public school teachers and administrators go to learn how to do their jobs, after all.

Underwood, who said she is not opposed to charter schools in general, explained her comments to me this way:

“I do believe that the officials we elect to be responsible for publicly funded PK-12 education — school boards and the Wisconsin State Superintendent — should be the ones responsible for publicly funded PK-12 education.”

Similarly, when I asked Madison School Board member T.J. Mertz — a critic of nontraditional public education models — about the bill, he framed it as a question of “local control.”

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“The big issue in this bill is the loss of local control,” he said. “It allows for the authorizing of charters without any role for elected boards and mandates the approval of replicant charters, regardless of the needs of the community.”

It’s a funny notion, this “local control.”

Used by tea partiers to object to the new “common core” standards and by liberals to object to charter and voucher schools, the principle of “local control” tends to be so dependent on circumstance as to be not much of a principle at all.

True local control would dictate that if a state university is to refrain from authorizing charter schools, it should refrain from authorizing many of their affiliated centers and institutes because they use public money but lack direct public oversight, too.

True local control would mean electing Madison School Board members by geographic districts, not by randomly assigned at-large “seats.”

The state’s most recent school report cards show the Milwaukee school district scoring 14 points lower than 10 of the 11 charters authorized as of last year by UW-Milwaukee (one wasn’t rated). This despite very similar student poverty levels — 82.3 percent for Milwaukee and 75.96 percent for the charters.

Such results don’t make the proposal for allowing more university-authorized charters good or bad, but they do suggest the proposal’s worth should have little to do with who’s in control.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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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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