So far, Madison’s abiding liberalism, support for unions and overwhelmingly white population have helped to marginalize alternative public education models such as vouchers and charter schools.
But that might not last forever, especially as Madison becomes more economically and racially diverse — in short, more like Milwaukee — and as long as the Madison School District continues to struggle to reach its low-income, minority students.
Republicans in the state Legislature are doing their part to make Madison charter- and voucher-school-rich with a proposal that seems tailor-made for the now-defunct Madison Preparatory Academy charter school.
Madison Prep, a project of the Urban League of Greater Madison, was designed to serve low-income, minority students and help remedy the district’s long-standing achievement gaps. It was rejected by the school board on a 5-2 vote in 2011, mostly because of opposition from the teachers union.
Lawmakers are proposing expanding the entities that can authorize charter schools — beyond local school boards, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside and the city of Milwaukee — to include all UW System campuses, state technical colleges and state Cooperative Educational Service Agencies, or CESAs.
Urban League president and CEO Kaleem Caire said he’s open to reprising Madison Prep as a UW-Madison-authorized charter. Two years ago, it gained support from some UW-Madison faculty — including professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, who was on the school’s board.
“We would consider it,” Caire said, although he emphasized he would want to partner with a local school district or districts, regardless of who provides a charter.
“Our aim is not to develop a parallel school system,” he added. “It’s important to us that any school we operate serve as an example of innovation that could be implemented within a public school district.”
UW System spokesman David Giroux said the Board of Regents hasn’t taken a position on the Republican proposal, and Ladson-Billings referred questions about a possible UW-Madison-authorized school to Education Dean Julie Underwood, who previously said she does not favor colleges authorizing charter schools.
Madison Area Technical College Provost Terrance Webb similarly said MATC has “long benefited from our strong partnerships with the K-12 schools” but “the college has no current intention to sponsor any K-12 charter schools.”
And administrators for the statewide CESA and CESA 2, which cover the Madison district, pointed out that authorizing charter schools would have them directing public dollars toward charters and away from the local public schools that belong to and fund CESAs.
More important than whether UW-Madison might take a chance on Madison Prep, though, is whether such a school chartered by UW-Madison would work. Caire said “higher education institutions tend to be more careful about who gets a charter and tend to charter some high-quality schools.”
There appears to be some evidence of this. Ten of 11 UW-Milwaukee-authorized charters have an average state report card score some 14 points higher than the Milwaukee Public Schools generally, with one charter school not rated.
The MPS and charter schools have comparable rates of poverty, although MPS schools have higher proportions of disabled students and English language learners. A special state test for disabled students and other accommodations can help mitigate the negative effect on a school’s overall performance but not necessarily completely, according to James Wollack, an associate professor and expert in testing and evaluation at UW-Madison.
Republican bids to expand charters and vouchers come at a time when a recent report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families shows the gaps between blacks and whites in Dane County are significantly larger than those statewide or nationally.
High school graduation rates, child poverty and juvenile arrests are among the areas where blacks struggle in Dane County, and state test results show Madison School District achievement gaps persist.
The longer those trends continue, the more likely it is Republican proposals to expand charter and voucher schools will gain support among parents — maybe even parents in (rapidly changing) Madison.
And Madison’s educational institutions could be faced with whether they want to go willingly into the future, or get dragged there.