The Madison School Board vote on whether to create a charter school geared toward low-income, minority students has wide-ranging implications for the district.
The proposed Madison Preparatory Academy presents an experiment in closing the achievement gap between minority and white students but would tap resources that otherwise could support traditional schools.
It challenges the hours, pay, methods and diversity of Madison's teachers, but in doing so could run afoul of the district's contract with its teachers union.
It provides a different model — including separating students by gender — in a district historically skeptical of alternative approaches, but allows only limited oversight by taxpayers, the public and the elected board.
And no matter which way the Dec. 19 vote goes, there's no way to know now whether the school will be entirely effective.
"This is the most difficult decision I will ever make on the School Board," said Marj Passman, who plans to vote against the proposal. "It has the potential for polarizing our community, and that's the last thing I want to happen."
The vote comes more than a year after the charter was proposed and in the wake of a School District report outlining its opposition to Madison Prep. The school would violate the district's contract with its teachers and preclude sufficient oversight of the $17.5 million in district funds the school would receive over five years, the report said.
District opposition likely will lead the board to reject the proposal, said School Board president James Howard.
"I don't see how it can pass," said Howard. He and Lucy Mathiak are the only two board members who said they will vote to approve the school.
In interviews last week, Passman, Maya Cole and Ed Hughes said they expect to vote against the proposal. Arlene Silveira and Beth Moss declined to disclose how they plan to vote.
Urban League of Greater Madison president Kaleem Caire, the lead proponent of the charter, acknowledged he doesn't have the votes. But he's engaged in a full-court press to generate public support for the proposal.
"We have a moral obligation to do whatever it takes to support our children and special interest of adults should not come before that," Caire said last week.
No matter how the vote turns out, the School Board is on notice to address the achievement gap, said Harry Brighouse, a UW-Madison philosophy and education policy studies professor who has followed the Madison Prep debate closely.
"There is a kind of momentum behind this," Brighouse said. If the School Board votes no, "they have to present real, clear alternative experiments that they're going to be pursuing."
'Needs aren't being met'
Caire cited the district's chronic achievement gap as the primary reason the School Board should approve Madison Prep. In 2010, for example, 48 percent of black students graduated, compared with 87 percent of white students.
"If 48 percent of white kids in Madison were graduating from high school, heads would be rolling," he said.
He said the district does not have a well-defined plan to close the achievement gap, and argued Madison Prep is designed to work with struggling students and has a diverse group of supporters.
Former Commerce Secretary Mary Burke, who pledged $2.5 million to the school if it opens, said she supports Madison Prep because something different must be done to reduce dropout rates. Many of Madison's biggest issues — including crime and quality of life — stem from the high dropout rates of low-income, minority students.
"You have to address the issue or it's going to bring down the overall quality of the School District as a whole," Burke said.
Sarah Toce, executive director of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, which advocates for the expansion of charter schools but doesn't take positions on specific proposals, said the School Board's vote is important, especially as Madison historically has been averse to charter schools.
"The whole point of the charter school movement is to provide a way for districts or communities to provide a school for students whose needs aren't being met in the traditional system," Toce said.
Opponents have made a variety of arguments, some of which resulted in changes to the proposal.
After the state Department of Public Instruction questioned opening an all-male school, the proposal was changed to open a girls school at the same time. Both would be part of Madison Prep. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin still has legal concerns about separating students by gender.
The School District questioned the school paying the Urban League an administrative fee totaling $900,000 over five years. And Cole and others wonder if the school would enroll the students who struggle the most, especially those identified for special education services and those whose parents aren't actively involved in their education.
In recent weeks, the most significant issue to emerge is whether Madison Prep can employ nonunion staff without violating the district's contract with Madison Teachers Inc. Hughes said it's the main reason for his opposition.
"Nobody in their right mind would vote for this with these potential legal issues hanging over them," said T.J. Mertz, an Edgewood College history professor who blogs on local education.
Mertz said other troubling issues in the Madison Prep plan include exempting the school from most district policies, paying teachers less per hour than district teachers and spending $2.7 million over five years, money that could go toward other programs.
Will it work?
Caire is confident Madison Prep would succeed based on the results at similar schools. "It will work far better than what we're doing right now," he said.
But observers say the evidence is mixed on charter schools and there's no way to be certain the school will be successful.
Dawn Crim, associate dean for external relations for the UW-Madison School of Education, said there's no guarantee Madison Prep will work, but it's the first proposal that "gets to the heart of" the achievement gap in Madison.
"It is a tough question for the School Board because it makes the School District acknowledge there's a problem that has not been addressed," Crim said. "If they vote no it says status quo is what we have and we're going to continue working around the edges to solve the problem."
Brighouse said charter schools tend to attract students who are more likely to succeed anyway, while clustering more troubled students in traditional public schools.
"I don't think there's any real evidence that this will improve the education of the least advantaged one-third of students," Brighouse said. At the same time, "nobody is going to be able to say definitely this isn't going to work."
Madison Preparatory Academy is a proposed charter school that would operate separate schools for boys and girls. It would offer an International Baccalaureate curriculum; require uniforms, participation in sports and other activities, and certain levels of parental involvement; and guarantee 100 percent of graduates enroll in a postsecondary school.
Who is proposing Madison Prep?
Kaleem Caire, president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, floated the idea in August 2010 based on his experience with K-12 education reform in Washington, D.C. The Madison Prep board includes leaders from the minority, academic, faith and business communities.
When and where would Madison Prep open if approved by the Madison School Board?
The school would open next August at the former Mount Olive Lutheran Church, 4018 Mineral Point Road.
Who would run Madison Prep?
The school's president, which for the first two years would be Caire, would report to a 17-member board, which would set policies and oversee daily operations. The separate boys and girls schools each would have a principal and other administrative positions would be shared. In its first year the schools would share 12 teachers plus a counselor and social worker. The School Board and School District would have limited oversight.
How many students could attend? Who could attend?
The school would enroll 60 male and 60 female sixth graders next fall with 70 percent coming from the Cherokee, Hamilton, Jefferson, Sennett, Toki and Wright middle school attendance areas. The goal is to enroll a student body that is 80 percent non-white, 65 percent low-income and 20 percent English language learners. If more students apply then there are spaces, a lottery would be held. The school would add 120 students each year until it has 840 students total in grades six through 12.
What is the total cost of the proposal?
The school would cost $23.9 million over five years; $17.5 million would come from the School District, $5.8 million would come from private donations and $880,000 would come from student fees. However, the School District anticipates it can reduce its expenses by $14.8 million because it wouldn't have to educate Madison Prep students in its own schools. That's why the net cost to the district is $2.7 million over five years.