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Chris Rickert: Madison schools grudgingly submit to public education they can't control
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Chris Rickert: Madison schools grudgingly submit to public education they can't control


The Madison School District has seen the enemy and it’s, well, a former second-grade teacher from an ethnically diverse school district who’s worked for both a Republican and a Democratic lawmaker.

I guess when you risk losing your monopoly over publicly funded education, you’re not likely to roll out the welcome mat for anyone chosen to oversee the creation of non-district-controlled charter schools — no matter what his credentials.

As the man who will establish and lead the new Office of Educational Opportunity for the University of Wisconsin System, Gary Bennett will have a lot of influence over what kinds of independent charter schools Madison and Milwaukee students and their familieswill be able to choose from in the future.

Bennett comes recommended by Sen. Alberta Darling, who along with her Republican colleagues have raised the ire of public school monopolists and their Democratic allies by expanding vouchers and charter school opportunities. In liberal Madison, Darling’s support is more like a scarlet letter.

But he also once served on the staff of state Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat, and despite being given multiple opportunities, her office had no ill to speak of him on Monday.

Madison already has three charter schools, but all of them are so-called instrumentality charters, meaning they’re ultimately controlled by the School Board and must abide by the district’s collective bargaining agreement with teachers. Their freedom to innovate is only so free, in other words.

Moreover, there’s research showing that competition from charter schools helps improve — or at least does not harm — academic performance in traditional public schools.

John Witte, a UW-Madison professor emeritus who was the principal researcher on a long-term study of Milwaukee’s voucher school program, said studies in Milwaukee “found that competition from charter, magnet and voucher schools has had beneficial effects on the public schools.”

The effects are not large, but they are statistically significant and “there are no reports of negative effects,” he said. “In my view as a 40-year resident of Madison and a parent who sent his children to Madison public schools, introducing some choice into Madison schools is long overdue.”

Everyone already knows that Madison, like a lot of districts, has long failed to boost the academic achievement of poor students and students of color. For them, there’s little to lose in taking a chance on independent charter schools authorized by one of the best public university systems in the country.

Bennett’s hire elicited some of the usual whining from the left about how hard life has been for school districts under a Republican-led Legislature. (As if public schools were knocking it out of the park under Democratic control.)

But Madison superintendent Jennifer Cheatham also sounded like she was up to the challenge, saying she wants to make Madison’s public schools so good that “there isn’t a need” for Bennett’s office. School Board member Ed Hughes resignedly expressed interest in working with the office.

It’s not exactly a welcome mat, but in Madison, it’s a start.

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

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