State “charter czar” Gary Bennett said he’s answered technical questions from a “handful” of groups interested in starting independent charter schools in Madison, but there have been no formal proposals yet and he doubted any such school could open before fall 2019.
Bennett, director of the state’s Office of Educational Opportunity at the University of Wisconsin System, has the power to bypass local school boards to allow creation of independent charter schools. His authority originally covered just Madison and Milwaukee, but as of Thursday, he can now exercise that power throughout the state, under a GOP-backed provision in the new two-year state budget signed by Gov. Scott Walker.
A former teacher and state political aide, Bennett was hired in April 2016 to run the office, which was created by Republican legislators. On Aug. 1, Bennett issued a request for proposals for charter school applications in Madison and Milwaukee for schools that technically could open in the fall of 2018 or fall 2019.
But the earlier date now appears unrealistic, he said.
“I’d have to have a proposal approved by the UW Board of Regents and to the (state) Department of Public Instruction by Feb. 1,” Bennett said, for a 2018 opening.
That means school proposers would have to have a completed proposal to him for review within a few months, which seems unlikely, Bennett said.
He declined to characterize in detail the ideas for any Madison proposals he’s seen so far before any official applications are in, but he said they “range from really focused content-area schools to innovative, project-based learning schools.”
“Those conversations are really rewarding,” Bennett said, lauding the opportunity he said his office has “to really grow quality (educational) choices for kids.”
Bennett said he has spent most of the time since his hiring developing a process for office operations and shepherding through the Legislature a drug-addiction recovery charter school favored by GOP lawmakers. The school, approved in July, could go anywhere in the state, with competitive proposals to create it, including a location, due by Dec. 2.
Bennett has developed a five-year contract model for charter schools to be approved through his office.
He said he hopes successful schools can be absorbed by school districts after their contract with his office is up.
Applications from groups seeking to start charter schools will be screened by Bennett and a review committee, with proposals recommended for approval by Bennett, then moving to the UW Board of Regents for a final decision.
When asked whether Bennett’s now-expanded reach for charter proposals throughout the state would require hiring more staff for his office, UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis suggested that wouldn’t be necessary.
“The UW System is uniquely positioned to call upon the knowledge of educational experts at our campuses as needed,” Marquis said. “In addition, OEO will continue to work with educational partners and stakeholders statewide, particularly to close opportunity gaps as soon as possible.”
Independent charter schools are funded by state taxpayers but operate outside most traditional public school rules in a way that supporters say can make them more effective for students.
Detractors counter that they are a financial drain on the public school system, with no guaranteed ability to offer students a better education.
Madison has no independent charter schools, and Madison School District Superintendent Jen Cheatham has long said her goal is to successfully innovate within the 50-school district enough to make Bennett’s office obsolete.
Bennett said he continues to work closely with the district, noting he recently met with district lawyer Dylan Pauly to work out an agreement for the internal sharing and public posting of any Madison charter school applications that are submitted. Proposals are to be posted on the district’s website within two weeks of the submission date, and on his own office’s website within one week, Bennett said.
“We had a really productive meeting in terms of timelines and about what we disclose to who and when,” Bennett said. “That’s good government at work.”