Seven Stumbling Blocks for Madison Prep

The Madison School Board’s recent consideration of the Urban League’s application for a planning grant from DPI for the Madison Preparatory Academy for Young Men prompted me to dig deeper into the issues the charter school proposal raises.  I have several concerns  – some old and some new – that are described below.

I apologize for the length of this post.  It kind of turned into a data dump of all things Madison Prep.

Here are the seven areas of concern I have today about the Madison school district agreeing to sponsor Madison Prep as a non-instrumentality charter school.

1. The Expense.

As I have written, it looks like the roughly $14,500 per student that Madison Prep is seeking from the school district for its first year of operations is per nearly twice the per-student funding that other independent and non-instrumentality charter schools in the state now receive.

Independent charter schools, for example, receive $7,750 per-student annually in state funding and nothing from the local school district.  As far as I can tell, non-instrumentality charter schools tend to receive less than $7,750 from their sponsoring school districts.

It seems that the Madison Prep proposal seeks to pioneer a whole new approach to charter schools in this state.  The Urban League is requesting a much higher than typical per-student payment from the school district in the service of an ambitious undertaking that could develop into what amounts to a shadow Madison school district that operates at least a couple of schools, one for boys and one for girls.  (If the Urban League eventually operates a girl’s school of the same size as projected for Madison Prep, it would be responsible for a total of 840 students, which is a larger total enrollment than about 180 school districts in Wisconsin can claim.)

What about the argument that Madison Prep does not propose to spend any more on a per-student basis than the Madison school district already spends?  There are a couple of responses.  First, MMSD does not spend $14,500 per student on in-school operations – i.e., teachers, classroom support, instructional materials.  The figure is more like $11,000.  But this is not the appropriate comparison.

In general, charter schools are not intended to impose significant, new financial burdens on their sponsoring school districts.  Instrumentality charters, by far the most common form in Wisconsin, are integrated into the school district, so there is insignificant additional administrative overhead.  These schools are frequently located in existing buildings (like Nuestro Mundo is located at Frank Allis School) and typically do not require much in the way of additional teachers beyond the numbers that would be required to teach the same students in different, non-charter configurations of the districts’ schools.

Non-instrumentality charter schools are different.  Since they operate independently of the school district, they have to reach an agreement with the district on a specific funding formula.  As far as I can tell, the existing  non-instrumentality charter schools in the state  do not operate on anything like the scale proposed for Madison Prep.  They tend to be virtual schools, or multi-district collaborations on an alternative school for students at risk, or small, specialized schools in Milwaukee.

Further, the Madison Prep proposal will require the school district to come up with at least an additional million dollars in the first year of its operations, and increasing amounts in subsequent years.

As I have written before, here are the net additional 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

Given the tight spending limits the Governor’s budget bill seeks to impose on us, we may have no way to raise that money through an increased property tax levy and instead would have to find it by cutting existing programs.  I am not willing to do that.

2. Opportunity Costs

We also should consider opportunity costs.  The question isn’t just whether we could find some way to come up with the additional $1,000,000 or so for the first year of Madison Prep’s operations.  It is also whether we could use that $1,000,000 in other ways that would produce more of a total beneficial impact for our students than the total beneficial impact Madison Prep is likely to have on its students.

In order to consider opportunity costs, we have to first identify what business school types would refer to as Madison Prep’s value proposition.  What specific additional value does the school propose to bring to the school district?  Is it to enhance the academic performance of African-American male students?  If so, then we wouldn’t be getting anything for our investment in the projected 60% of the students at Madison Prep who won’t be African-American.  Instead, that first year we’d be investing over a million dollars to help a projected 48 students (the 40% of the school’s 120 students who are projected to be African-American).  That works out to more than $20,000 per student beyond the normal cost of educating those students.  If you took any student in our school system and decided to spend $20,000 on additional academic and other supports for that student, I’d expect you’d see academic gains.

Perhaps a better way to look at the school’s first couple of years of operation is to say that Madison Prep will provide a new, high-performing middle school that will effectively serve a diverse student population.  From this perspective, the point of comparison should be other MMSD middle schools that serve a diverse population.  If an existing middle school received the additional resources we’d be directing toward Madison Prep, how might the two school’s performances stack up?

Let’s compare Sherman Middle School to what is proposed for Madison Prep.  Sherman also serves a diverse group of students.  In its Initial Proposal, presented to the School Board last December, Madison Prep stated  that admission will be “open to all males residing in Dane County who apply, regardless of previous academic performance.”  The proposal also states:  “[T]he founders expect that 40% of its students will be Black, 20% will be Hispanic Latino, 25% will be White, and 15% will be other.  The founders also project that Madison Prep will be 50% low-income and that 10% will be English Language Learners.”

The table below compares the projected numbers for Madison Prep with the comparable current numbers for Sherman Middle School (using the initial proposal’s terminology):

Madison Prep (Projected) Sherman Middle School
English-Language Learners 10% 24%
Low-Income 50% 71%
Black 40% 27%
Hispanic Latino 20% 18%
White 25% 34%
“Other” 15% 21%

While Sherman has somewhat more white students and somewhat fewer African-American students that Madison Prep expects, it also serves significantly more low-income students and English-language learners than Madison Prep anticipates.

As the the Capital Times recently reported, under the very capable leadership of principal Mike Hernandez, Sherman has made big strides and was recently designated a “School of Recognition” by DPI.  One of Sherman’s initiatives is to work on improving students’ reading skills by “double dosing” instruction for struggling readers, first in their homeroom class and later in the day with reading teacher Bill Heintz.

Madison Prep sets some lofty goals for itself in its Planning Grant application.  For example, it hopes that after three years of enrollment, or by the time they are in eighth grade, 85% of the school’s students will score proficient or advanced on the state reading test.  The most recent WKCE test scores were just announced.  The percentage of eighth grade students at Sherman who scored advanced or proficient in Reading was 82.3%.

Madison Prep first expects to have students enrolled in sixth, seventh and eighth grade during its second year, when the school’s operations should cost the school district an additional $1.5 million.  What could Mike Hernandez, Bill Heintz and the rest of the Sherman staff do for their 360 students with an extra $1.5 million a year?  It would be like winning the lottery for the overworked and stretched-too-thin staff.  With that level of resources, could we expect to see the kind of results out of Sherman that Madison Prep hopes to achieve, and thereby improve learning for more than twice as many students?  I certainly think so.

Madison Prep proponents have a logical rejoinder: We’re not speculating, we’re doing.  In fact, they’ll say, you’re not going to give $1.5 million more to Sherman or any other school, so you’ll have no increased student achievement to stack up against what we will achieve.

They have a point.  As a matter of fact, the school district’s equity policy would likely prevent us from showering huge additional resources on just one school.  But then, if we can’t do it for the students at Sherman, why should we do it for the students at Madison Prep?

3. Instrumentality vs. Non-Instrumentality

The non-instrumentality aspect of the Madison Prep proposal is troubling.  The point isn’t that teachers at a non-instrumentality school need not be members of MTI, our teachers’ union.  That doesn’t really bother me, as I informed MTI in a response to a campaign questionnaire.

The point is that the district is surrendering control over the operations of one of its schools, with not much promised in the way of accountability measures.  It is not reassuring that the planning grant application states this: “The Urban League will seek waivers for all MMSD Board of Education policies except those relating to student safety and health.” And this: “Because Madison Prep will be a non-instrumentality charter school, the relationship between the school and the school district will be significantly more limited than the relationship between MMSD and its three instrumentality charter schools.”

Because of the school’s proposed non-instrumentality status, the Urban League will look to enter into a five-year contract with the school district that specifies the sums that the school district will provide to the school each year.  Such a contract is likely to obligate the school district to more than $10 million in additional spending over those five years.  That’s certainly enough to give one pause (and it raises the question why those who regularly criticize the school district for what they see as its profligate spending have thus far been either mum or wildly enthusiastic about the Madison Prep proposal).

It’s hard for me to justify the surrender of control that a non-instrumentality structure requires when the justification for the non-instrumentality requirement is unpersuasive to me.  It certainly didn’t help when at our Board meeting on Monday night the Urban League’s Kaleem Caire was adamant that the non-instrumentality structure is non-negotiable as far as he is concerned.  This deepens my concern.  (I know, I know, I voted to proceed anyway.)

4. The Legality of a Single-Sex School

The gender discrimination issue is a real one.  Wisconsin law authorizes a single-sex charter school only if the sponsoring school board “makes available to the opposite sex, under the same policies and criteria of admission, schools or courses that are comparable to each such school or course.”

Will we have a school available for girls in 2012 that is comparable to Madison Prep?  Well, not according to Madison Prep.  It states in its planning grant application: “[T]here is no doubt that Madison Prep will be unique.  Madison Prep will be the only all-male public school option in Dane County when it opens in 2012.  Furthermore, the school will be the only IB school in the city offering the full continuum of the IB Programme at the secondary level.  Finally, while MMSD offers after-school activities and care, no school in the district offers a significant amount of additional instructional time through an extended school day and extended school year, as Madison Prep will.”

I don’t think it can be denied that the legality of Madison Prep’s all-male model is an open question.  It will remain one unless and until it the issue is addressed by a court.

5. The Inaccuracy of Madison Prep’s Representations

I am becoming increasingly dismayed by inaccuracies and distortions in statements offered in support of the Madison Prep proposal. Here are two examples.  First, there has been talk about the low percentage of MMSD students of color who are deemed “college ready” and how this will change with Madison Prep.

For example, one of the most recent documents we received from the Urban League states:

Consider the ACT data again for a second illustration. For MMSD’s graduating class of 2010, fewer than 6 of the 76 African American students who took the ACT were deemed “college ready.” Assuming once more that 40% of Madison Prep’s first graduating class is African American, the school will have prepared 24 young Black men to demonstrate their college-readiness on the ACT. In this way, Madison Prep will have helped the district reach a 400% increase in the number of African American students who will be deemed “college ready.”

The Urban League makes the claim that, in contrast to the 6 of 76 MMSD African-American graduates, every African-American who graduates from Madison Prep “will be deemed ‘college-ready.’”  A similar claim was reported that the graduates of Urban Prep in Chicago, some of whose students visited Madison in February and participated in a Madison Prep event, were all college-ready.

To be considered “college-ready” for ACT purposes, a student must receive at least 18 on the English subpart of the test, 21 in Reading, 22 in Math and 24 in Science.  For Urban Prep, in 2010 3% of its students met the college-readiness benchmark in math and 3% in science.   This means that no more than 3% of its students – or 4 out of 118 – would be deemed “college ready” by ACT.  While the percentage of Madison African American students deemed college ready is offered as evidence of the failure of the Madison school district, that percentage is actually higher than that for Urban Prep, which is held out as a model to which Madison Prep aspires.

Similarly, despite their assertions to the contrary, the sponsors of Madison Prep do not actually expect that their graduates will all meet the ACT benchmarks for college readiness.  Instead, the goal they have set is that 75% of their graduates will earn a score of 22 or higher on the ACT.  It is a mathematical impossibility for the 25% of the Madison Prep students who would score below a 22 on the ACT to satisfy the ACT college-readiness benchmarks.

The point is not that the low percentage of MMSD African-American students satisfying the ACT college-readiness benchmarks should be a source of pride or engender a sense of complacency.  It is instead that the Madison Prep sponsors either do not understand what the ACT college readiness benchmarks are or else they do and are willing to twist the concept to fit their advocacy.  Neither alternative inspires confidence that the school district could rely on Madison Prep for rigorous and even-handed assessments of the performance of their students as compared to other students in the school district.

Here is a second example.  A couple of weeks ago, when the Madison Prep planning grant application was to be considered by the School Board’s Planning and Development Committee, Superintendent Nerad sent the Board a memo about the proposal.  It included the following table:

Year #1
Year #2
Year #3
Year #4
Year #5
Year #6
Madison Prep Request $ Per Pupil
Transfer of Allocations/Allotments From MMSD $ Per Pupil
Shortfall $ Per Pupil

Here’s what this table tells us.  In 2012-2013, Madison Prep is requesting a payment from the school district that works out to $14,476.43 per student.  There is some money the district is currently spending that it will save as a result of the opening of the new school – for example, enough students might transfer to the school from our existing middle schools that we won’t need as many teachers.  The school district’s best guess is that this amount of savings will work out to about $5,541 per student.  This means that the incremental cost to the school district – the net amount of additional spending we will incur as a result of the new school – should be just under $9,000 per student.

In an email to supporters, the Urban League included a slightly modified version of this chart:

2011-12 Plan Year
2012-13 MP Opens
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4
Year 5
Madison Prep Request $ Per Pupil
Superintendent’s Proposed Per Pupil finding of Madison
Shortfall $ Per Pupil

Here is what the Urban League said:

A March 14, 2011 memo prepared by MMSD Superintendent Daniel Nerad and submitted to the Board reflects the Urban League’s funding requests noted above. This memo also shows that the administration would transfer just $5,541 per student – $664,925 in total for all 120 students – to Madison Prep in 2012-2013, despite the fact that the district is currently spending $14,802 per pupil. Even though it will not be educating the 120 young men Madison Prep will serve, MMSD is proposing that it needs to keep $8,935 per Madison Prep student.

This completely mischaracterizes the table.  The point was certainly not that the superintendent only deigned to “transfer” $5,541 per student to Madison Prep and that he would greedily hold on to the remaining $8,935 per student.  It was that the establishment of the school – and hence the school district’s operation of 12 middle school rather than 11 – would require additional new spending that worked out to about $9,000 per student.

Mr. Caire compounded the mischaracterization when on March 23 he testified on SB 22, the proposed charter school legislation.  He said:  “It was unfortunate to hear our superintendent say he was opposed to charter schools but now I understand why they only want to give us $5,500 a kid.”  This is a mischaracterization two-fer.  First, Dan Nerad testified against SB 22 not because he or the district is opposed to charter schools but because the bill would reduce the autonomy of local school boards by establishing a new bureaucracy to authorize charter schools anywhere in the state.  Second, the statement that “they only want to give us $5,500 a kid” is flat-out wrong.

Again, I don’t know whether the Madison Prep folks did not understand the superintendent’s memo or chose to mischaracterize it.  Neither alternative inspires confidence that we can count on Madison Prep for reliable financial analysis.

6. It Has Never Been Tried Before

I don’t know of any existing middle or high schools that have successfully utilized the model that Madison Prep proposes.  What’s more, if the sponsors of this project have ever actually started and operated a school of any type, they have not shared that information with us.  Indeed, it is odd that, as far as I can tell, we have never been supplied with any written description of the background and qualifications of any members of the Madison Prep design team.

The DPI planning grant application states, “Additionally, Kaleem Caire, President and CEO of the Urban League, will serve as the operational leader of the school.  See the Initial Proposal for Mr. Caire’s professional experience.”  However, the Initial Proposal, which was presented to the Board last December 6, does not include any information about Mr. Caire’s professional experience.

During his testimony in favor of SB 22, Mr. Caire said, “I have presided over great charter schools – big ones.” It would be helpful if someone could identify the charter schools to which Mr. Caire refers.  No reference to them is included in his extensive biography on the Urban League website.

I don’t want to get all credential-y here, but being absolutely, positively convinced your proposal will work isn’t necessarily a substitute for professional qualifications for the architect and sponsor of a new school.

7. Fish or Fowl?

The Madison Prep proposal seems to encompass two different and not-entirely-compatible approaches.

The first approach is premised on a mission of salvaging struggling students.  With this kind of focus, the school would be designed to remediate and improve the skill levels of its students and prepare them for success in college.  This seems to me to be the Urban Prep model – extra doses of reading instruction (just like Sherman!) and really whipping into academic shape kids who otherwise are likely to fail.  Success for this approach would be measured by a student testing in the proficient range on standardized tests, graduating on time, and gaining admission to, and having the skills to succeed at, say, MATC.  That’s no small accomplishment.

Alternatively, Madison Prep could be seen as a publicly-funded equivalent of a private college prep school.  This is the dimension of the school that touts the International Baccalaureate curriculum and its Phillips Exeter-inspired Harkness table classroom model.  From this perspective, the goal isn’t to get its graduates just into MATC, it’s to get its graduates qualified for admission into the most selective colleges in the country.

These dueling orientations are reflected in a portion of Madison Prep’s Initial Proposal.  The proposal states that part of the school’s planning funds will be used for “visits to model single-gendered and high quality schools that are relevant to Madison Prep’s school design (Urban Prep in Chicago, Eagle Academies in New York City, Philip’s Exeter in New Hampshire, and St. Paul’s School outside of Baltimore, MD.)”

Urban Prep and Eagle Academy follow the first approach outlined above.  Phillips Exeter and St. Paul’s follow the second.  The latter two schools are both academically-rigorous private prep schools.  High school tuition at St. Paul’s is $22,520, which is less than the $30,820 Exeter charges day students (boarders pay more).

What will the model be – MATC or Ivy League?  The choice matters.  If the goal is to save and rehabilitate our failing students, the IB curriculum doesn’t seem to make sense.  Or, at least, it doesn’t seem a good match for the school’s focus, though some students would no doubt thrive with it.  The approach makes more sense, however, if the goal is to establish a publicly-funded version of Madison Country Day (the only IB school in Dane County).  But that is not what our community, and most of Madison Prep’s current supporters, want to see.

The Madison Prep proposal currently draws support from the fact that it can appear to be all things to all people – it’s Urban Prep and it’s Exeter! But that ultimately is unrealistic.  I don’t see how a school of Madison Prep’s planned size can follow both models. Trade-offs are inevitable.  It would be helpful to know what those trade-offs are likely to be.

* * * * *

I have more questions today about the Madison Prep proposal than ever.  The proposal is likely to come back to the School Board for final approval in December.  I suppose it is possible that I could vote in favor of it at that time.  That is most likely to happen if: (1) the cost to the school district of the proposal is substantially reduced; (2)  the district has a way of raising the necessary funds; (3) I’m persuaded that our students are better off if we make the investment in Madison Prep rather than other realistic alternatives; (4) the instrumentality – non-instrumentality issue is resolved in a satisfactory way; and (5) the Urban League has shown that it wants to be a partner rather than a rival.  

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4 Responses to Seven Stumbling Blocks for Madison Prep

  1. Kristen says:

    I get frustrated when anyone who asks questions is accused of being “against Charter schools” – personally, there is a lot I really like in the Madison Prop proposal. However, I do not understand why the district and the Urban League can’t work together and collaborate to create an instrumentality model. (For all the reasons you outlined above.)

    As for the extended school day, many of our schools will be losing their CLC grants in the next few years. This could be an amazing opportunity for the district to invest in true extended-day programs within some of our existing schools. A group of parents just submitted a grant to the Madison Foundation for Public Schools to pilot an extended day program at our elementary school. While I’m troubled that it is the parents pushing for these programs and not the district, I do understand the difficult financial constraints in which you operate. (But an extra million would go a long way to setting up a district-wide elementary extended day program!)

  2. Kristen says:

    Sorry – typo – that should have said Madison PREP. My mistake!

  3. Will Williams says:

    I wish these concerns had been raised at the board meeting ,even though I don’t feel the vote would have been different, it may have aroused some supporters curiosity and maybe change the outcome, by giving cover to vote against the flawed proposal.

    As you know Kaleem listed JROTC as one of the programs earlier on , and later changed the language which does not say if there are plans now or in the future for JROTC. The board should get a clear answer regarding JROTC and Madison Prep.

    I am very concerned about the large federal grants given to The Black Alliance For Educational Options (BAEO) ,Kaleem’s belief the Navy saved him,his support for the NCLB Act 2002 including section 9528 and Former Secretary Of Defense William Coehn’s statement JROTC is the best recruitment tool DOD have.

    I realize Madison Prep as other charter proposals throughout the nation have unlimited funds for deceptive media blitz and marketing campaign, We in opposition will continue trying to make the public aware of this scam that is detrimental not only to the poor and working poor but Public Education as a whole.

    Thank you and I hope The board will discuss the real issues when the proposal come back.I still feel the Quarter Of A Million Dollar Grant should have been used for a grant that would lift all students ,Than one that have more questions than answers.

  4. Doing some research today and reread this. With the (partial) exception of the gender matters, not much has changed.

    I have one clarification re. the mention of the Equity Policy. Yes it is true that reallocating $1.5 million to Sherman or any other school’s budget would likely violate the Equity Policy, but the policy does support “…an unequal distribution of resources and services in response to the unequal distribution of needs and educational barriers.”

    I have been continually disappointed that this principle has not been more prominent in the budget process, nor has the related reporting requirement — “Administration will develop an annual report that will provide data on the distribution of staff, financial, and programmatic resources across all schools” — been met by the Equity Reports issued.

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