What to Do About Madison Prep?

On Monday, March 28, the Madison School Board will vote on approving the application of Madison Preparatory Academy for Young Men for a planning grant of $250,000 from the Department of Public Instruction.  The planning grant is intended to support the efforts of the Urban League of Greater Madison to develop a charter school – Madison Prep – that would first open its doors for the 2012-2013 school year.

I intend to vote in favor of this motion, as I already have in a Board committee meeting.  Nevertheless, my affirmative vote will not signify my uncritical endorsement of the Madison Prep proposal.  As it is presently constituted, that proposal seems to me to be flat-out too expensive for the school district.

The rest of this post explains the different kinds of charter schools in Wisconsin and the charter school model Madison Prep is pursuing, attempts to place into context the size of its funding request to the school district and its budgetary implications and ramifications, and recommends exploring an alternative approach.

  • The Three Types of Charter Schools In Wisconsin

There are three kinds of charter schools in Wisconsin.  “Instrumentality” charter schools function as part of and under the supervision of the sponsoring school district and constitute more than 80% of the charter schools in the state.  Madison’s Nuestro Mundo, Wright, and new Badger Rock are all instrumentalities.

“Non-instrumentality” charter schools are considered part of their sponsoring school districts, which supply their funding, but operate independently of the districts.  These schools have their own administration and hire their own teachers, who need not be members of the local teachers union, and follow their own educational strategy.  According to the website of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association , there are currently 19 non-instrumentality charter schools in the state.

Charter schools of the third type are currently limited to Milwaukee and Racine.  They can be operated under the auspices of the City of Milwaukee, UW-Milwaukee, and Milwaukee Area Technical College or (for the one school authorized in Racine) UW-Parkside. These schools receive their funding directly from the state.   Currently-pending Senate Bill 22 as well as the governor’s budget bill would establish a new bureaucracy that could authorize these independent charter schools anywhere in the state.

  • Why Madison Prep Wants to Be a Non-Instrumentality Charter School

Madison Prep intends to be a non-instrumentality charter school.  The only accountability the school would have to the school district would derive from whatever provisions are included in the contract that is negotiated between the school and the school district.

I have asked at different times and in different ways why it is necessary for Madison Prep to be a non-instrumentality school.  The first answer I received was that the responsibilities and expectations for teachers at the new school would be incompatible with the school district’s collective bargaining agreement with MTI.  (As far as I know, no one associated with Madison Prep ever met with MTI representatives to discuss the feasibility of a Memorandum of Understanding that would adapt the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement to the needs of the school.)

More recently, at a March 14 Board committee meeting, the Urban League’s Kaleem Caire stated that the school could not have teachers who’d walk off their jobs, referring to the recent protests over the budget repair bill.  He also seemed to come pretty close to saying that the Madison school district doesn’t know what it is doing when it comes to educating African-American students and is incapable of providing a quality education to them and so, essentially, Madison Prep just doesn’t want very much to do with the school district.

  • It Looks Like Madison Prep Is Seeking Nearly Twice the Per-Student Funding as Other Charter Schools.

A problem with pursuing the non-instrumentality approach for Madison Prep is that it makes the school a far more costly undertaking.  Here’s a table showing how much Madison Prep is requesting from the school district in total and on a per-student basis for the first five years of its operation:

Total Amount Amount per Student
2012-2013 $1,737,172 $14,476
2013-2014 $2,483,743 $13,798
2014-2015 $3,590,692 $14,961
2015-2016 $4,391,004 $14,636
2016-2017 $4,822,096 $13,394

As far as I can tell, this is far, far more on a per-student basis than any other charter school in the state is receiving from its sponsoring school district or from the state.

I have formally asked Madison Prep twice for information on the level of funding that is provided to Wisconsin non-instrumentality charter schools by their sponsoring school districts and have yet to receive a substantive response.   However, I have looked at the list of 19 non-instrumentality school districts on the website of the Wisconsin Charter School Association and I have been unable to identify a school that is likely to be receiving anywhere near the level of funding that Madison Prep is seeking.

Independent charter schools  — the ones operated by the City of Milwaukee, MATC, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Parkside — receive $7,775 per student in state aid and nothing from local school districts.

The Urban League points the Chicago’s Urban Prep charter high school as a model for Madison Prep.  According to its 2009 annual report, Urban Prep had 445 students and received $3,817,525 from Chicago Public Schools.  This works out to $8579 per student.

The non-instrumentality virtual charter school associated with the McFarland School District receives about $6,700 per student.  I believe this is way too much, as I have previously written.  I have no reason to think that any of the other non-instrumentality charter schools in the state receive per-student funding in excess of the $6,000 to $8,000 range, or anything in the neighborhood of the $13,000 to $14,000 level that Madison Prep requests.

One of the reasons the Madison Prep proposal is so expensive is that, as a result of its non-instrumentality status, it plans to put together an entire administrative apparatus that would be unnecessary if it were an instrumentality school.  For example, its proposal calls for the school (and ultimately the school district) to pay an annual management fee to the Urban League that reaches $270,000 in 2016-2017.

  • The Net Costs of Madison Prep to the School District

Our administration has tried to figure out what the net cost of the Madison Prep proposal to the school district would be.  This requires a calculation of the savings we’d achieve in operating our other schools as a result of students transferring from them to Madison Prep, as well as the increased state aid we’d receive as a result of some students choosing Madison Prep over home schooling or enrolling in other school districts.

These savings tend to work out to about $5,500 per student per year.  Subtracting these amounts from the amounts of Madison Prep’s requests gives us the following table of net costs to the school district of Madison Prep’s proposal.

2012-2013 $1,072,246
2013-2014 $1,524,751
2014-2015 $2,246,327
2015-2016 $2,722,090
2016-2017 $2,795,472
  • The Harsh Reality: We Can’t Always Get What We Want

In order to maintain Madison Prep, the school district would have to find these amounts somewhere in our budget or else raise property taxes to cover the expenditures.  I am not willing to take money away from our other schools in order to fund Madison Prep.  I have been willing to consider raising property taxes to come up with the requested amounts, if that seemed to be the will of the community.  However, the draconian spending limits the governor seeks to impose on school districts through the budget bill may render that approach impossible.  Even if we wanted to, we likely would be barred from increasing property taxes in order to raise an amount equal to the net cost to the school district of the Madison Prep proposal.

This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that budgetary considerations prevent us from investing in promising approaches to increasing student achievement.  For example, one component of the Madison Prep proposal is a longer school year.  I’m in favor.  One way the school district has pursued this concept has been by looking at our summer school model and considering improvements.  A good, promising plan has been developed.  Sadly, we likely will not be in a position to implement its recommendations because they cost money we don’t have and can’t raise under the Governor’s budget proposal.

Similarly, Madison Prep proposes matching students with mentors from the community who will help the students dream bigger dreams.  Effective use of mentors is also a key component of the AVID program, which is now in all our high schools.  We would very much like to expand the program to our middle schools, but again we do not have the funds to do so.

  • Where Do We Go from Here?

The Madison Prep proposal cannot be immune from the sort of scaling back and chipping away of our programs that we are constantly forced into as a result of budget constraints.  This prompts the question of whether the key components of the proposal could be made available to our students in a more cost-effective manner.

It seems to me that we should at least look into whether they could.  The logical question to ask, at least to me, is whether we could try to implement the approach in one of our schools.  As I have said before, Wright Middle School seems like a likely candidate, since it is already a charter school and serves a student population similar to Madison Prep’s target demographics.  It would require a lot of cooperation from a lot of stakeholders, including from MTI, to transform the current approach at Wright to the Madison Prep model.  Ultimately, it might not work but there is no way to know for sure until the various issues have been identified and explored.

Implementing the Madison Prep model in one of our current schools as an instrumentality charter school would require additional expenditures, but I suspect the totals would be a lot closer to the kind of numbers we were able to approve for Badger Rock than to the levels in the current Madison Prep proposal.

There is another point here, and it is unrelated to Madison Prep.  The public schools in Wisconsin are currently under siege.  The governor has chosen to address the state’s biennium budget woes by seeking to reduce the take-home pay of the state’s public school teachers by about a billion dollars.  Proposals are coming from all directions that would undermine our public school system and move to a privatization model. The governor and his allies seem to be pursuing a deliberate strategy of undermining local school boards’ authority over the schools in their districts.  Under the circumstances, I feel I have to think long and hard about any proposal calling for us to surrender control over the education of more of our students, as any proposal for a non-instrumentality charter school does.

This isn’t a dispute about whether the district should provide more and better opportunities for our low-achieving students, and particularly students of color, to work harder and to learn more, and to provide the resources that are necessary to support that kind of effort.  Of course we should.  It’s a question about what is the best way to do that, given our limited resources and current structure.

I have a bias toward our own schools and toward instrumentality charter schools.  At the moment, I am not persuaded that we couldn’t accomplish most of what Madison Prep promises within our own school structure and through an instrumentality charter program within one of our own buildings.

Put another way, I’m not persuaded that the only way to achieve Madison Prep’s laudable goals is by surrendering supervisory authority we don’t want to lose and spending money don’t have and can’t raise for an entirely new school that we don’t need.

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3 Responses to What to Do About Madison Prep?

  1. Kristen says:

    Thank you for another well-thought-out post, Ed.

    I have gone back-and-forth on the Madison Prep proposal. I think they have done a good job of identifying challenges/problems and coming up with some creative ideas as part of their solution. But after hearing the tone in which they addressed the school board at the last planning meeting, I find it hard to support the concept of a non-instrumentality charter school that will divert precious resources from existing schools. Especially one run by administrators who are that rude to the school board. I sometimes disagree with your decisions, but I have nothing but respect for the hard work that you all do. They lost me when they disparaged the “whims” of the school board and attacked the teachers for leading the protest against the Budget Repair Bill.

    However, I do agree that the district needs to do more to support our students who aren’t achieving. I urge you to expand AVID/TOPS. That is a program within our district that is working well with proven results in our existing schools.

    You say yourself: “I have been willing to consider raising property taxes to come up with the requested amounts, if that seemed to be the will of the community” in regards to Madison Prep. What about raising property taxes to expand AVID/TOPS? I suspect you would find more community support in Madison for that than you think.

  2. Mary Battaglia says:

    While I really want to say the money spent on something like Madison Prep is going to be worthwhile, I continue to question the concept of waiting till 7th grade. Reversing this concept to enroll students K – 6th into a focused academy then allowing the students to be a part of our very capable High Schools could accomplish the following:
    1. Reduce transient issues for students that move from school to school.
    2. Establish early study habits, role models, and increase structure.
    3. Reduce services needed in early education, concentrated focus on early reading skills and allow more “physical movement” in education.
    4. Establish an I can do this attitude in an early grade.
    5. Utilize HS we have that generally do a great job with capable and goal oriented students. Allowing students to be a part of the “real” world of all students prior to going to college.

    I keep asking why when study after study says early intervention improves outcome and reduces long term cost of educating low income students why we would wait till 6th grade. I keep getting a “well at least it would be doing something”. Weak answer. I would like to see my tax dollars receive the most efficient and biggest bang for my buck. I know the Chicago Model is for 7 – 12…but I see a better model. I think it would be less expensive to run, except for the busing.
    I also have a HUGE problem with the current summer school system in Madison. It is viewed by MMSD staff as a dumping ground for unmotivated students and needs to be revamped. That is another topic all together.

  3. Mary Birmingham says:

    A very thoughtful explanation of how this would hurt our current schools and students and yet you intend to vote in favor? It didn’t compute for me. Your arguments clearly call for a vote against this proposal until more information can be given as to why the high costs.

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