Top Ten Reasons To Be Wary of the Republican Scheme to Stick Charter Schools in Madison

During the Joint Finance Committee’s recent legislative bludgeoning of the University of Wisconsin system, Committee members snuck into the omnibus UW motion a provision that creates a new entity in the UW System. The sole purpose of the entity is to authorize new independent charter schools to operate within the Madison school district (and, theoretically, in Milwaukee as well).

An article by Molly Beck in the State Journal reported on this development and included quotes from me and our superintendent Jen Cheatham that were sharply critical of the proposal.

Yesterday, Chris Rickert wrote a column in the State Journal that essentially called Jen Cheatham and me short-sighted and self-interested whiners, as interested in maintaining control over Madison public schools as in educational outcomes.

In a virtuoso flight of rhetorical fancy, Rickert analogized the proposed new UW bureaucracy tasked with jamming Madison with charter schools to U.S. Marshals sent to the segregated south to overcome racist recalcitrance during the Civil Rights movement.

It’s a new experience being compared to the likes of Bull Connor and George Wallace, but I suppose I can chalk it up to the pressure Rickert is under to produce four provocative columns a week.

What’s tougher is buying into Rickert’s interpretation that the Joint Finance Committee Republicans are the good guys here, struggling mightily to do what’s right for our kids. My much different interpretation is that the Joint Finance proposal is simply another cynical attack on our neighborhood public schools and is motivated both by animus for Madison and by an unseemly obsession with privatizing public education, particularly in the urban areas of our state.

So we have two contrasting interpretations of the proposal. As it happens, I am right and Rickert is wrong.   To help Rickert see the error of his ways, here’s a Letterman-like list of the top ten reasons why the Joint Finance proposal to establish a so-called “Office of Educational Opportunity” within the office of the UW System President is a cynical ploy to stuff Madison with charter schools for the sake of having more charter schools rather than a noble effort to combat injustice:

  1. The proposal holds the potential for a dramatic impact on Madison’s public schools. Yet no sponsor or supporter of the legislation had any discussion with anyone in the Madison school district about our schools, strategies for enhancing student achievement, promising practices, charter school philosophy, or anything else.
  1. It turns out that other provisions of the proposal could end up authorizing the establishment of independent 2r charter schools in more than 140 school districts across the state. (“2r,” by the way, is a shorthand reference to the provision of Wisconsin law (section 118.40(2r)) that authorizes these independent charter schools.) There was no public hearing on the proposal. Indeed, there wasn’t even any public disclosure of the proposal until hours before it was adopted on a party-line vote in Joint Finance.
  1. While the utter lack of transparency keeps us from knowing for sure, it’s a safe bet that the Legislative Reference Bureau drafters of the legislation are taking direction from charter school lobbyists. Drafting files aren’t available until after the legislative session ends, but recent history is suggestive. In 2011, the primary bill to expand 2r charter school authorizers was SB 22. Drafting files show that the LRB drafters of that bill took direction from Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. A similar bill last session was AB 549. Drafting files for that bill indicate that the LRB staffer took direction from Jason Childress of Foley and Lardner, lobbying again on behalf of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.
  1. Current 2r authorizers include the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for the Milwaukee area and the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside for the Racine area.  The new authorizer for Madison should have been the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with whom our school district has a good relationship.  Instead, perhaps to avoid that good relationship, the authorizing authority is run through the president of the UW System, who has no history of involvement with Madison’s public schools but plenty of interest in keeping Republicans in the legislature happy.
  1. But the actual authorizer isn’t the president of the UW system or anyone else with an educational background already in the system. Even as they are taking a machete to the UW System budget, the Joint Finance Republicans propose to create an entirely new and unnecessary UW position – an additional “special assistant” appointed by the UW President to serve as the director of the newly-created “Office of Educational Opportunity.” There is no requirement that the “special assistant” have any sort of academic or other qualifications.  The UW President is free to appoint anyone he wants (or Senator Darling or Rep. Kooyenga recommends) to the position.
  1. The sole responsibility of this new special assistant is to contract with entities to operate charter schools in Madison (and theoretically in Milwaukee) and “monitor” the charter schools so established.   No standards are specified for the new private and potentially for-profit charter schools.  There is no limit on the number of new 2r charter schools that may be established in Madison.
  1.   As if devoting one person full-time to this undertaking weren’t overkill enough, the director is authorized to appoint two associate directors. So there would be three new UW bureaucrats whose sole contribution to the mission of the UW system is to stick new independent charter schools in Madison. But wait, there’s more! The director is also authorized to appoint whomever he or she wants to “advisory councils” that are to be formed to make recommendations for even more charter schools in Madison.  There would be more folks scratching their heads and trying to think up ways of adding 2r charter schools in Madison than there are teachers in our newest Madison charter school, Badger Rock.
  1. There is no direction in the legislation, or even suggestion, that the director, assistant directors, or advisory council members seek information from, consult with, or collaborate with the Madison Metropolitan School District.
  1. This year MMSD receives about $54.3 million in state equalization aid, which works out to about $2,000 for each of our roughly 27,000 students. Under the Joint Finance proposal, for every Madison student who enrolls in a new 2r charter school, $8,075 of Madison’s equalization aid would be siphoned off from MMSD and redirected to that charter school. So, strictly hypothetically, if the new Madison charter school czar moved aggressively to establish a host of new 2r schools that ended up attracting 7,000 students from our Madison schools, then of MMSD’s $54 million in state equalization aid, the 7,000 students in the new charter schools would get $54 million and the 20,000 students in MMSD neighborhood schools would get zero.
  1. Rickert supposes the charter school proposal was motivated by a sincere desire to address the achievement gap in Madison’s schools. When was the last time Republicans in the legislature staked out a controversial position in favor of providing genuine help to disadvantaged African-American youth?
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26 Responses to Top Ten Reasons To Be Wary of the Republican Scheme to Stick Charter Schools in Madison

  1. David Blaska says:

    Larry Bud Melman’s Top Ten Retorts:
    10) Wade thru MMSD’s “strategies for enhancing student achievement, promising practices, etc. etc.”? I thought corporal punishment was banned. The USSR guaranteed free speech. It’s results that count.
    9) 140 school districts? As AOL might have said, you’ve got company.
    8) “Taking direction from charter school lobbyists”? Could be, can’t say. But we do know State Government used to take direction from the teachers union.
    7) Dunno if the chancellor is involved with MMSD but former Dean of Education Julie Underwood was a reliable shill on behalf of the MMSD status quo.
    6) Do you really think the UW president will appoint Wavy Gravy?
    5) No limit to charter schools in Madison? Only market demand.
    4) Where do I sign up?
    3) Nor is Kohl’s required to consult with ShopKo. Or UW-Madison with Edgewood College.
    2) If 7,000 students flee MMSD what does that say about MMSD? Why are you so deathly afraid of competition?
    1) When was the last time MMSD bucked the teachers union to approve a school aimed at minority achievement? For that matter, what are MMSD’s bona fides as regards minority achievement?

    • Mark says:

      “If 7,000 students flee MMSD what does that say about MMSD? Why are you so deathly afraid of competition?” Surely you understand that 7,00 was just an example case, not some kind of crtical binary yes/no threshold. If only 1,00 students pursue this option (less than one in 25 students), then they take 15% of the total MMSD state education aid with them. If 3,000 (just over 10% of students), then almost half of state education money. So if it’s only a smaller scale disaster, we can all breath a sigh of relief? Please tell me you understand this math Dave, that this ignorance of Ed’s point is just pretense.

      • David Blaska says:

        Missing the point. If MMSD schools are so wonderful, why would anyone leave? What does it say about your business model that you require a monopoly. Sure, kids can leave the school district but they got to pay us anyway?

        • Mark says:

          Do I really need to explain capitalism and marketing? You don’t think people are enticed to choose products because of slick advertising? At the higher ed level, you don’t think there’s a reason that universities send out lots of literature to high school seniors, and more to the point of this analogy, you don’t think there’s a good reason that for profit universities such as ITT and U of Phoenix actually spend more money on advertising than they do on instructor salaries? You don’t think it’s this marketing and PR (which MMSD does little to none of) brings so many students to pay their OWN money (not the state’s) to attend those, as John Oliver so aptly describes: It would just be a needless cut into their profits if it weren’t doing something to convince people to enroll when they otherwise might not have.

          • David Blaska says:

            Mark says: “You don’t think people are enticed to choose products because of slick advertising?”

            Yeah, Mark. Peoples be so stupid. Need experts like Mark and Ed to make decisions for them. Can’t trust people to sift and winnow for themselves. Might not choose MMSD. Might vote for Scott Walker. Capitalism bad; too many choices.

          • Mark says:

            I love your modus operandi Dave. I answer you about the 7,000 thing, you change the topic to “why would anyone choose something else if MMSD is better?” I explain how that could happen (and does already happen in other educational markets), and you change the topic again. Yeah sure Dave, when I say “marketing sometimes pushes buttons to motivate people to buy when they might not otherwise” — something so obvious it’s sad I even have to say it too you — yeah, what I’m saying is that capitalism is bad.

            Seriously, if you don’t want to actually respond to me just say so, don’t keep changing the subject or put words in my mouth that I never said.

          • Mark says:

            p.s. i case you also don’t pick up on this (or at least pretend not to), the last part of the first paragraph was sarcastic (“yeah, what I’m saying is that capitalism is bad.”) It’s sad I have to even say that explicitly, but that seems to be where this conversation is going, “gotcha” politics instead of actually responding to the other’s point.

          • David says:

            Dave Blaska, do you think students who chose a Corinthian college made a wise choice?

          • David Blaska says:

            “David” at June 8, 2015 at 11:16 pm asks: “Dave Blaska, do you think students who chose a Corinthian college made a wise choice?”

            No idea. But it was their choice.

  2. Rickert and Blaska discredit themselves by their inappropriate comparisons of Ed Hughes and Jen Cheatham to violent segregationists and the Soviets.

    By making such inappropriate comparisons Blaska and Rickert essentially conceded that they are wrong and that Ed and Jen have won the debate.

  3. Mad4Madison says:

    Now we can get into a discussion!

    Here is my Top One reasons to change the way that we educate our children. If you want to specifically localize the discussion to Madison, fine by me. If you want to draw the same conclusion for other districts, that too is fine by me.

    And now the Top One reasons to change:

    1) The current method is not working.

    And there you have it.

    All these problems did not just happen to show up at the feet of the MMSD Board this past year. All these problems did not just happen to show up at the feet of the MMSD Board since the election of the current governor.

    No, these problems have been here for a very, very long time.

    And try as folks might to paint the governor as the cause of all the problems (Some? Sure. All? Not really) the reality is that there have been entities and people with interests not solving the problem for a long time.

    Sorry Ed. You may not like the changes proposed. You may not like the state getting involved. I understand that. But for many years, nothing has been done locally. Yes, small pilots have been undertaken. Yes, there have been some solid improvements at a micro level where an at-risk student was given one-on-one instruction in reading. But this is simply not scalable. Current and previous MMSD Superintendents know / knew this.

    I won’t even begin to get into the issues surrounding Madison Prep. Rather than try, the Board chose a path that could be interpreted as supporting the status quo / MTI.

    MMSD has already tried to impose limits on students transferring out of MMSD and into other local districts (MG, McFarland, Middleton, Verona). Rather than understand the “why” of families making that choice, the district and others want to paint those families with negatives. MMSD is deathly afraid of the loss of money supplied by the state. I would hope that MMSD would be deathly afraid of the serious lack of successful education being provided to our students.

    I would be shocked, but proud if students walked out of class – not for Act 10 – but for the fact that the leaders in Madison have failed them.

    Ed, MMSD right now is like a person falling from the top floor of a building without a parachute. Around the 5th someone yells to them “You need help??!!!” and the reply is “No. All is good so far!”

    Blame others. Blame the state. Blame Walker (he does seem to be “in season”). Blame whomever you choose. But don’t be afraid to look in the mirror or look within MMSD as well.

    • Mark says:

      Though you may have made a case for making SOME kind of change, you did nothing to further the argument of making THIS change. The belief that change will always be for the better is naive. To take your analogy about the person falling, you are saying that if the falling person is saying “sure I need” help, anything done by the helper would be a good thing? How about “Here! Let me toss you an anvil!”

    • Mad4Madison — A full response would be longer than my original post, so I’ll refrain for now. But I reject both of your premises that Madison schools are failing in some systemic way and that those responsible for the schools are oblivious to the schools’ shortcomings.

      I think there are two significant points here. First, people want to see dramatic progress, whether coming from big new shiny programs or approaches or something else. Not going to happen. What we can and should be looking for is steady, incremental and sustained improvement in student achievement and outcomes. Second, as a consequence of the focus on potentially dramatic changes and an understandable lack of attention to the day-to-day operations of our schools, people don’t look closely to see if there is in fact incremental improvement underway in our Madison schools.

      I believe that there is, that it can be traced to the arrival of Jen Cheatham, that it is a multiyear effort, and that it is by far our best hope for the kinds of long-term and sustainable improvements in academic outcomes that we all want for all our kids.

      When people assert that we have failing schools in Madison, my response is to name one. Whatever school they name, I truly wish that they could sit in on a meeting of the school-based leadership team at that school. They’d experience the serious, intense and data-focused discussion that goes on at those meetings about how well the school is doing, which strategies are working and which aren’t, and what adjustments in focus and teaching approaches would best serve the school’s students.

      Getting back to the post, it would be a wonderful thing indeed if the folks responsible for running our schools could focus their undivided attention on those efforts and not have to deal with the restrictions on funding, changes in mandated assessments, whatever it is they are trying to do to the Common Core, big expansion of private school vouchers, introduction of special needs vouchers, and now the independent chart school assault that our friends in the legislature are sending our way with the budget bill.

      • Mad4Madison says:


        I did not assert that folks are oblivious, I asserted that doing more of the same is not the way to get a different result. The belief is “more of the same” will change the outcome. This is rampant within the district.

        You and I have a difference of opinion with respect to the “failing” of our schools. If you take the perspective of the student, we are failing them. And that is key to me – the perspective of the student. Through that lens, a lot of things get clearer. If it is believed (and sorry, slick advertising does squat to influence me here) that my child will get a better education by moving them out of MMSD, then the district and regulations should not get in the way of that. If it is believed that a more structured learning environment (possibly like Mad Prep) would enable my child to get a better education, then the district should support that. Put the students in the center of the circle and treat everything else as influencers. The center is not the district or the admin or the teachers.

        As to specifics, I have given them in the past and will gladly do so again. I am not sure that this is the forum that you would like the specifics given. But when teachers are being directed not to give out homework because some students will not get it completed and we do not want to single them out, that is missing the point by a mile. A. Mile.

        At some point in time, the district must acknowledge that MMSD is an urban district. Madison is not what it was 15, 25 or 35 years ago. The shining example of a district is not the reality today.

        As for giving the person an anvil – does that make a difference? They are still going to hit the ground – then anvil makes it happen faster. So no, the anvil is not going to “hurt” them – they already did that. What is silly is the person on the 5th floor saying “let me join you!”

        Change makes the establishment go crazy. That is what we are seeing.

      • Mark says:

        Mad4Madison, you say “If you take the perspective of the student, we are failing them.” No we’re not. Maybe some, but nowhere near all. I am the parent of two MMSD students, who moved into the district in the middle of their secondary educational careers, and (for the most part) they are not being failed. That is not just my perspective, but also theirs (again, for the most part — teacher quality is variable of course).

        I don’t doubt some people would be more pleased with other options. Really all that means is what Lincoln told us 150 years ago: “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” The things you want changed, e.g. more homework (which I sympathize with btw), I can guarantee you some other parents would react negatively to (I know at least one who has issue with status quo in that regard). There is no one size fits all when it comes to “pleasing.” You are taking an impossibility (pleasing all the people all the time) and then declaring MMSD a failure because it doesn’t deliver on that impossibility! Back to the falling analogy, many kids are NOT falling, they are gliding just fine to their destination. So yes, dropping an anvil on their back IS going to hurt them.

        • Mad4Madison says:

          Mark –

          You seem like a reasonable person and we might actually share many views. I too have two students (one graduated recently, so I have to learn to say one) and they started from the beginning in MMSD.

          But let’s frame the conversation a slightly different way… are we failing the students of color? Are we pleased with the graduation rates there? Are we happy with a rate of 66%? 75%? 90%? If the rates are (let’s just say) 70%, this what – a low “C”? Is that what we want for MMSD?? Unlike our current “Discipline Policy”, lowering the standards for graduation will not help make this problem evaporate. So yes, an anvil will not hurt these students in the least. Something needs to be done and it does need to be different that attempts in the past.

          My simple perspective is that Charter Schools are not the anvil here. They are an opportunity for students that would not have another choice. I also am pro-vouchers.

          How’s this for an option – vouchers that have a means test to them? Not sure on the legality, but why not that as an idea? This way, the at-risk kids could be the ones to have a choice – which is something they do not have right now.

          • Mark says:

            Mad4Madison – thanks for your reply. I’m not sure I made my point clear, I apologize. My point is that IMO there is no answer that will work for every student (and parent). Although there probably is some mix of strategies and resources that might serve more students better than the status quo, it does NOT logically follow that EVERY alternative is better, i.e any/all change would be for the better. I feel this is so obvious (about everything in life, not just MMSD) that I didn’t’ have to elaborate much, but that may have a mistake. OK, you say MMSD could be better. Granted (although you actually said “it’s not working,” which I’ve already pointed out is not a universally true statement). Then you say essentially “So let’s try this, it couldn’t be worse,” with no explanation of why the alternative would be better. i don’t accept that. It’s fine that this is your perspective, but you can’t expect everyone else to share it, or convince anyone of it without giving any reason relevant to the virtues of it specifically, not just your perceived lack of virtue of the status quo.

            Ultimately, I have no problem with the concept of charter schools; I was in favor of Madison Prep initially, at least until the combination of lack of details and repeated mistakes found in details that were provided gave me pause. Madison already has a few charter schools, they seem to be fine. What I have a problem with (and you actually don’t even directly address) is THIS SPECIFIC PLAN wherein a disproportionate amount of state $ per student gets channeled to the charters, at the expense of kids like mine, who likely will remain in MMSD.

            Regarding minorities, yes clearly there is an issue. Ironically though, one thing that I have not mentioned to this point is that I’m in a so-called an “interracial marriage,” so my kids are actually included in those minority “students of color” statistics you cited. I know other minority parents who are (mostly) happy with MMSD too. You shared that your kids have only been in MMSD. Well, our kids have been in three different school districts. Even though all three were pretty good, MMSD is either #1 or #2 — not #3. So yes, it could be worse. Even if you won’t acknowledge the possibility. I think living in Madison, instead of a larger urban area with a much larger and more troubled school district, may have shielded your from confronting just how much worse it could be.

  4. Ro Mason says:

    Hear, hear, Ed. Who will be in those charter schools, run for a profit, and getting a disproportionate share of public education funding? Probably well off mostly white students fleeing public education because of its high share of poor students–and the problems public schools face as a result. Republicans can feed their crony for-profit school corporations and provide free segregated education to the well off all at one blow. No wonder they want to do this.

  5. Laura chern says:

    People like to blame the board, the unions, the parents, the students, everyone except our elected officials who have been cutting funding and adding unfunded mandates for the past 23 years. You can’t have it both ways. Either you prioritize public school funding and have good schools or you prioritize low taxes and have crappy schools. If it weren’t about the money, we wouldn’t have the for profit charter organizations haunting the halls of the Capitol every day.

    • David Blaska says:

      If only we had more money! Jim Doyle had a Democrat legislature for 8 of the last 12 years; Tommy Thompson instituted 2/3rds state funding for all K-12 public schools (in aggregate, based on need). MMSD has been run by good liberals for all of your 23 years. Madison taxpayers have approved umpteen spending referenda. As for the profit motive, if Apple Computer wants to operate schools in Madison they WILL make a profit because they’ll deliver a great product. And no, I don’t blame teachers for dysfunctional families. I blame liberalism — or is Tony Robinson the fault of Scott Walker, too?

  6. David Blaska says:

    Mark With No Last Name, I did respond to each and every point you made. You just disagree. Instead of a rebuttal, you offer snark (“Do I really need to explain capitalism and marketing?”) The point is that if only 7 or 70 fled MMSD instead of the potential for 10 or more times that many, Ed Hughes would not have written this blog. To stanch the possibility of such an exodus, Ed and you want to fall back on state coercion. (Fine, leave if you want but pay us our money.) Ed and his fellows on the school board had a chance to start an MMSD charter school to address black under-achievement. The opportunity was handed to them. It had huge community support. Instead, they whiffed. Just as John Matthews of MTI is co-author of Act 10; the Madison School Board co-wrote the charter expansion.

  7. Torrey Jaeckle says:


    Your analysis of the lost state aid when students change from traditional public to charter schools fails to account for the fact that Madison’s traditional public schools no longer need to incur the costs to educate those migrating students. There is savings there that you fail to take into account. My understanding is Madison spends somewhere around $11,000 per student. Yes, part of that cost may be fixed, but a large part is also variable, and thus saved.

    I won’t posit that charter schools are a panacea, but I would point to New Orleans as an example of a school system where they appear to be providing the “steady, incremental and sustained improvement in student achievement and outcomes” that you claim to be aiming for.

    And for those commentators here harping on the largely unfounded fear of “for profit” charter schools, it bears pointing out that under 13% of all charter schools nationwide are for-profit endeavors. Madison had a prime opportunity to approve a promising non-profit charter school in Madison Prep and the board voted against it. Charter naysayers use the “for profit” bogeyman to stoke irrational fears, but in truth they are just against charter schools period.

    • Torrey –

      Yes, if a Madison student left one of our schools to attend a charter school we wouldn’t have to incur the costs associated with the attendance of that student. But that one student would be taking the amount of aid that the state provides us to educate four students. That’s not a good deal for us.

      I don’t have the background or inclination to write about schools in New Orleans. I agree that there are some very good charter schools. But we’re not talking about designing the best set of schools for a city as if we were starting from scratch. We already have 50 schools that are in operation in Madison. No fair observer would characterize any of these as “failing” schools that should be shut down and reconstituted. So, what’s the best role for charter schools in the Madison world we actually live in? A good discussion could be had on that point. But, for the ten reasons I listed, I fear that the Madison charter school czar that the budget bill contemplates would not be interested in that discussion, or any sort of collaboration with the Madison school district.

      Then, of course, there’s the issue of local control. As I have written before, the platform of the Republican Party of Wisconsin states: “We support local control of education and keeping control of schools in the hands of elected, local school boards.” Any Madison resident who believes the school district should take a different approach to charter schools has the opportunity to run for election to the school board and thereby seek community support for the change. That would certainly facilitate a better discussion of the issues among the Madison families that would be affected than the sort of stealth legislating that the Republicans on Joint Finance are currently engaged in.

  8. richard lesiak says:

    I’m not going to try and change the subject or muddy the waters(blaska), but I have a major concern . Why are we allowing this and many other policy changes to be pushed into action with no public disclousure, open forum, public input. The public hates our state leaders. Why? We can’t trust them. They have developed a nasty trait of trying to hide their true agenda by burying it other large bills. Everthing these people do lately is Cracker Jack politics. Open the box to see what surprise is inside.

    • Mark says:

      Richard makes an important point. That they dispensed with even the pretense of representative democracy (seeking public input) on a change of such widespread, significant impact should give even those agree with the change pause. Does it?

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