After a year of discussion (and many blog posts from me), the School Board is heading for a final vote on the Madison Prep charter school proposal next Monday.
I have a lot to say about the proposal and how I intend to vote. But first, I’d like to clear through the rhetorical underbrush a bit, and briefly respond to six points that, for reasons I’ll try to explain, won’t affect my decision. I’ll add a final observation as well.
1. If it can’t be for everyone, it shouldn’t be for anyone.
Here’s a quote from an on-line comment of a Madison Prep opponent responding to one of the several op-ed pieces posted in the Cap Times in recent days: “There are barriers to students with special education needs, barriers to students with behavioral needs, and barriers to kids who rely on public transportation. These children are simply not the ‘right fit’. It is Madison Prep’s proposal to leave these kids in their neighborhood schools.”
The notion seems to be that Madison Prep may not be welcoming for students from all points along the spectrum of educational needs, even though our neighborhood schools are obligated to serve everyone.
I think the self-selection process for Madison Prep should be taken into account in assessing how its students perform. But it does not trouble me that the school is not designed to meet the needs of all our students. No one need apply to attend and no student will be denied current services or programs if Madison Prep is authorized.
The critical questions to me are, first, whether the problem the school is targeting is one that, for whatever reason, the school district has been unable or unwilling to address, and, second, whether the charter school’s proposed approach to the problem is promising enough to support.
If the answer to the questions is yes, then of course the target population of students for the school would be defined in terms of the problem sought to be addressed, and that target population would be some subset of our entire student population. Focus is different from exclusion.
2. The either/or fallacy.
This point gets expressed as, “Instead of approving Madison Prep, the school district should [fill in the blank].” The preferred alternatives extend from additional resources to the needs of preschoolers to expanding the district’s AVID/TOPS program in our middle schools.
Madison Prep is not an either/or proposition. It is not the case, for example, that either we approve Madison Prep, or we expand the AVID/TOPS program.
We surely do not have unlimited resources, but we can do both if we decide that both are worth doing. Subject to our state-imposed spending limit (which is not binding us at the moment), we just have to be willing to pay for both.
3. The appeal of imaginary alternatives
Related to the either/or argument is one that expresses a preference for imaginary alternatives. This one is stated in terms of “Rather than approve Madison Prep, you should [fill in the blank].” The alternatives here range from turning an existing middle school into a charter school, to aiming a new charter school at the needs of younger students, to significantly scaling back the Madison Prep proposal and insisting upon a different curriculum or different staffing model or, well, a whole different proposal.
We do not commission charter school applications. The Urban League didn’t ask us what we wanted to see before it put together the Madison Prep proposal. If it were up to me, I would have suggested different aspects of the proposal. But it wasn’t and I didn’t.
There can be and has been discussion with the Urban League on different components of the proposal, and the Urban League has responded to some of the concerns expressed. But ultimately we have to make a judgment on the proposal as it is presented, with such modifications as we may approve and the Urban League may accept.
It is not a requirement for me that the Madison Prep proposal be ideal from my perspective. The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. I also bear in mind that if we vote no, a preferred alternative will not immediately spring into existence.
4. “Why would you support a segregated school?”
This one make my teeth hurt. Most often, the point seems not intended to advance the discussion but to end it by detonating a rhetorical landmine.
As the result of a whole host of complicated factors that I cannot begin to unravel, many of our African-American students are either struggling in school or, worse, have given up the struggle entirely. The Madison Prep proposal is primarily though not exclusively designed to provide an alternative for those students. So, if the school is a success, it is likely that its student body will have a darker complexion than most of our other schools.
This is not segregation. Different programs in our schools serve the needs of different groups of students. Lots of African-American students at Madison Prep would be no more evidence of “segregation” than lots of white students in an AP physics class at West.
Instead, both are a reflection of the undeniable fact that we have quite the achievement gap here in Madison, something that Madison Prep is intended to address. Arguing against Madison Prep on the ground of “segregation” is like arguing against an offer of free haircuts because it discriminates against the bald.
5. Madison teachers are already working hard to address the achievement gap.
While talking about Madison Prep with teachers and administrators I respect, I have frequently heard pained questions about why are the proponents of the charter school attacking us?
Passionate feelings are on display and overheated rhetoric has come from all directions. But I don’t view the Madison Prep proposal as an indictment of our administrators, teachers and staff.
Instead, it’s born of the recognition that, despite the sometimes heroic efforts of our dedicated teachers and staff, our African-American students are, by and large, simply not succeeding in our schools, nor even doing as well as African-American students in other parts of Wisconsin.
Madison Prep is not an attempt to mimic our traditional approach except with “better” staff. Instead, it’s an invitation to try something completely different. Like it or not, that’s kind of the idea of a charter school.
6. It’s the first step toward privatizing public education in Madison.
There is an increasing and unfortunate trend toward the privatization of our public school system. I think that virtual charter schools run by for-profit operations are currently the most pernicious embodiment of the trend. I recognize that privatizers could support Madison Prep because they perceive that it advances their agenda.
But the Urban League is not K12, Inc. For years, the Urban League has been an important and valued partner with the school district in providing tutors and after school programming for Madison students. Madison Prep is better seen as an extension of this partnership than as a stalking horse for the evil forces seeking to destroy public education. (Through hard-earned experience, I have learned that any email on Madison Prep that mentions the Koch Brothers in the first paragraph is not one that will expand my understanding of the issues.)
One further point. Opponents of Madison Prep sometimes draw a contrast between what they see as the extra benefits that Madison Prep students stand to gain as compared to the students in our existing Madison schools. The sometimes implicit question is why should these select few students get a deluxe program while resources are so tight for our remaining students?
The answer is because a number of generous donors – most notably Mary Burke – have made financial commitments to Madison Prep that would allow it to implement its model without placing an inordinate financial burden on the school district.
This is a good thing. The students who would attend Madison Prep are our students, and we want the best for them, as we do for all our students.
We need to think long and hard before we reject the generosity of our community members who, through the Urban League, are extending unprecedented offers to help subsidize the education of some of our students.
Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t turn down the gift of a new car because I’d prefer a four-door to a two-door model. I’d say thank you and figure out a way to make that two-door model work for me.