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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?