The Likely Impact of the IMA Charter School Proposal on MMSD Equalization Aid

On January 30, the Madison School Board will consider a proposal from Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA) to establish a new charter school within the Madison school district. As the name suggests, the school would offer a Montessori curriculum.

A key question is what would be the financial impact of the new charter on the school district. For several reasons, this is very hard to project.

The financial analysis that the MMSD administration prepared for the School Board’s benefit looks at whether the addition of the school would generate sufficient new revenue authority to cover its net costs to the school district. In other words, would we be able to raise property taxes enough to cover the cost? The answer: not for the first couple of years. This is because revenue limits are based on the number of students in a school district, and new students are phased in over three years for revenue limit purposes.

While this analysis is helpful, I think it may be more useful to look at the likely impact of a new charter school on the equalization aid we receive from the state. Will the additional costs of the new school be offset at all by an increase in equalization aid? If so, by how much?

It is hard to make projections of future equalization aid. The equalization aid formula is based on six variables. Three are calculated by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) on the basis of statewide factors as well as on the total amount available in equalization aid in a given year. The other three factors are specific to the school district: the total number of students (calculated per DPI rules), the total amount of property value in the school district, and the total amount of school district expenditures (again calculated per DPI rules). (I wrote an explanation of the equalization aid formula a few years ago that you can find here.) Continue reading

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Betsy DeVos, Our Public Schools, and the Misleading Metaphor of the Market

Fox News pundit John Stossel recently wrote a column that – wait for it! – praised Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education and mocked those who oppose her.

Like many before him, Stossel defends DeVos’ hostility to public schools by invoking the metaphor of free-market competition, which he sees as a bracing corrective to ineffective, wasteful, and teacher-union-dominated public schools.

Stossel writes:

My consumer reporting taught me that things only work well when they are subject to market competition. Services improve when people are free to shop around and when competitive pressure inspires suppliers to invent better ways of doing things.

DeVos understands that. That’s why she wants to allow parents to choose the schools their kids attend. Schools that do a better job will attract more students. Better schools will grow, while some inferior ones will close.

Inferior schools, like any failing business, should close. It’s a disservice to students to keep them open.

Metaphors can promote clarity when they provide perspective on one concept by drawing parallels to others. But they’re not always helpful. As Amos Tversky observed in Michael Lewis’ newest best-seller, “Because metaphors are vivid and memorable, and because they are not readily subjected to critical analysis, they can have considerable impact on human judgment even when they are inappropriate, useless, or misleading.” When the topic is the future of our public schools, the metaphor of the market is useless, misleading, and downright harmful.

Invisible Hands Don’t Care About Quality.

The metaphors of the market and Adam Smith’s invisible hand of competition explain how we’re better off when business winners and losers are determined by the cumulative impact of individual consumer choices rather than by government dictate.

But this is a very agnostic approach to market value. Since Stossel writes, “I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a bad restaurant while government debated how to improve it,” let’s take restaurants as an example.

So long as they avoid poisoning patrons, the value of restaurants inheres solely in the extent to which they win favor among those who are willing and able to spend money on their menu items. If they do, they succeed. If they don’t, they fail. As a social matter, we don’t care who the winners and losers are.   Continue reading

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What’s Going On with Personalized Pathways?

There’s a lot of concern being expressed these days about the Madison school district’s Personalized Pathways initiative.

Personalized Pathways are intended to bring a more coherent, focused and engaging organizational structure to our high schools.  Ninth grade students will have the opportunity to select a pathway built around a theme.  Each of our four large high schools will offer a health services-themed pathway next year that will be available to 120 to 150 students at each school.

Students in that pathway will take English, math, social science, and science classes together.  The teachers of the classes will coordinate, the classes will have a health services focus to some degree, and the students will be offered more than the typical menu of hands-on and experiential learning, guest speakers, and larger-scale projects.  Students will be offered options for both stand-alone and earned honors within each pathway.  The plan is for each school to gradually offer additional pathway options over the next several years.

The school district’s communications to students and families about pathways has fallen a bit short.  Eighth graders will soon have to decide whether they want to sign up for the health services pathway, and, for many parents, news about pathways and upcoming decision-points is seemingly coming out of nowhere.  Additionally, there are apparently rumors swirling around suggesting that the pathways initiative will bring with it all kinds of bad stuff. Continue reading

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Good News: Madison Third-Grade Reading Scores Are Finally Trending Upward

The Madison school district released the 2015-16 Annual Report on the MMSD Strategic Framework a couple of weeks ago. There is good stuff in here on the progress our school district and our students are making and it rewards a thorough read.


It is worth highlighting the encouraging data in the report on third-grade reading.   The percentage of students who are proficient readers by third grade is generally recognized as perhaps the single most important statistic for a school district. Its significance has spawned the urban myth that planners in departments of corrections study third-grade reading scores to determine how many prison cells they will need to build in coming years.

Why focus on third grade? As the saying goes, up to third grade students learn to read and after third grade they read to learn. A 2014 United Way of Dane County report quoted a finding of the National Research Council: “Academic success, as defined by high school graduation, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone’s reading skill at the end of third grade. A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.” Sociology professor Donald Hernandez has found that, in the words of Education Week, “A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer.”

Like just about all measures of academic performance for Madison students, third grade reading scores over the years have shown a gaping and seemingly intractable achievement gap between African-American students and white students. Improving academic achievement for all students, and particularly accelerating learning for African-American students in ways that can narrow gaps, have been overriding priorities for superintendent Jen Cheatham since she arrived in Madison in April, 2013.

So, how is it going? In Madison, we measure learning primarily through MAP tests that are administered in the fall and spring to our students between grades 3 and 8. The springtime scores let us know how many of our students are proficient, as MAP defines it, and also what percentage of our students made the expected growth in their skills between the fall and spring administration of the tests.

Here is a chart that shows both the percentage of all third-grade students who measured proficient in reading by MAP standards over the past four years, as well as the percentage of African-American third grade students:

Copy of Wizard dataJust as we’d like, the chart shows progress for all students and accelerated learning for our African-American students. Over the last two years, the reading proficiency of all our third grade students increased by three percentage points, and the percentage for African-American third graders jumped ten points, though starting from an admittedly dismal level.   The achievement gap on this measure was narrowed from 30 percentage points to 23 percentage points. Continue reading

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“Inappropriate, short-sighted, and an insult to the city.” Other than that, how did you like our letter, Mr. Mayor?

Judge Doyle Square is back in the news. The City is now weighing two different proposals from the same developer for the two downtown blocks. The Board of Estimates endorsed the more expensive of the proposals last night (April 11) and the Common Council will likely take a vote on April 19.

To the vocal dismay of Mayor Soglin, the school board has gotten involved, writing to the mayor and alders to urge that they select the less expensive of the remaining alternatives. Here’s the letter:

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Why does the school district care? With the right decisions, Madison public schools could receive $12 million. It is worth ruffling a few feathers to advocate for those much-needed funds.

By now, most folks’ eyes glaze over at the mention of Judge Doyle Square. But it’s important, really! So gird yourself, plow through the following questions and answers, and you’ll emerge equipped to explain to the mayor and anyone else why $12 million for our schools is better than a $13 million subsidy for downtown luxury apartments.

Q.   Let’s start with some background, and first deal with some of the acronyms. What’s TIF and TID?

A.   TIF is tax-incremental financing. With a TIF project, a tax incremental district (TID) is created that encompasses an area targeted for improvement. The city makes public funds available to a developer who needs financing help for a project located in the TID. The city then freezes the current property value in the TID. Property owners in the TID pay property taxes levied by the school district, city, county and Madison College based on the current assessed value of their property, just like everyone else. But the only portion of those taxes that go the taxing jurisdictions is an amount equal to what the property taxes would be on the frozen property value. The amount paid above that frozen value – known as the increment – is devoted to paying off the public investments in the projects. Once the cumulative incremental property taxes have paid off the initial public investment, the TID can be dissolved and the increased property value in the TID can be restored to the tax rolls. Continue reading

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Expulsion F.A.Q.s

As the recent events with Dereian Brown have illustrated, the Madison school district expulsion process is something of a mystery to those who aren’t directly involved.  Here are answers to some of the questions that people have asked.

But first, a disclaimer. Members of the School Board don’t publicly discuss the deliberations we have about expulsions in closed session. I am speaking only for myself here. Also, student privacy considerations preclude us from talking about individual cases, so my focus is primarily on general procedures and policy issues.

Who decides whether a student will be expelled from a Madison school?

Ultimately, the School Board decides.

Where does dealing with expulsions rank among School Board responsibilities?

I think it is everyone’s least favorite part of the job. It is certainly mine. School Board members take every expulsion seriously. The application of our expulsion policy to the unique situations of individual students is a sobering and often saddening exercise.

How does an expulsion get started?

Expellable offenses are identified in our Behavior Education Plan (BEP). Once someone at a school learns that an expellable offense may have occurred, an investigation is undertaken by a school administrator. This is generally the principal or an assistant principal – for ease of reference, we’ll assume it’s the principal. The principal interviews students who may have information, including the students who are suspected of the misbehavior, and, when possible, reviews videotape from security cameras.

If the principal determines that a student has done something that meets the definition of an expellable offense, he or she sends an expulsion memo downtown. This is mandatory – the principal has no discretion in the matter.

The memo is reviewed, and if it is in order, an administrator prepares an affidavit that recommends the student for expulsion for a specific period of time, and also recommends an early reinstatement date.

If the student has or is suspected of having a disability, an investigation explores whether the behavior in question was a manifestation of the student’s disability. If so, the process ends. Otherwise, the matter is referred to a hearing examiner for a hearing. Continue reading

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Against Revenue Limits

It was a tough budget year for Madison’s schools. We delayed our technology plan, put a hold on expansion of our successful AVID college-preparation program, and reluctantly adopted more than $9 million in additional cuts. But as Wisconsin school districts operating under revenue limits go, we were lucky.

Revenue limits have forced the Pardeeville Area School District to absorb unusually deep cuts. Since last spring, the district has cut spending for teaching positions, field trips, textbooks, staff development opportunities, summer school, and athletic equipment and eliminated the cheer and dance team. (In a rousing example of bake-sale financing, the team was reinstated last month after team members raised $4,000 to keep going.)

The School District of Rhinelander is making plans to go to referendum next February for authority to spend more than revenue limits allow. Without revenue limit relief, the district will be facing more than $7 million in budget cuts. The jaw-dropping list of projected cuts include closing the district’s two charter schools, increasing class sizes, axing high school AP and foreign language classes, and eliminating all extracurricular activities.

The Solon Springs school district is planning to go to referendum in April to exceed revenue limits. The stakes are particularly high. Without spending relief through a successful referendum, the district will operate at a deficit that puts it on a path toward mandated dissolution within five years. Continue reading

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