Fact-Checking School Board Campaign Claims About the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School Proposal.

In the heat of the current School Board campaigns, there has been a lot of misinformation about the School Board’s 6-1 vote in January to approve the application of the Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA) to become a charter school within the Madison school district.

Below are ten points of clarification about the IMA proposal — mostly facts but with some opinions mixed in.

This explanation is prompted in part by the following statement attributed to the Kate Toews for School Board campaign:

IMA (Isthmus Montessori Academy) is an existing private school and the district recommended against taking it on as a charter at every single opportunity because it doesn’t meet academic, demographic, or budget standards. The current district estimates show that $375,000 will be cost reduced from Lakeview, Gompers, Emerson, Mendota, Hawthorne, and Sandburg when it opens. Turning private schools into public ones is not innovation, and is not what charters were intended to be.

For context, the assertions in this statement should be assessed in light of what the superintendent and other administrators actually advised the School Board regarding the IMA proposal. Here is the key portion of what the superintendent wrote in her final memo to the Board on the topic prior to our January vote to approve the proposal:

The strengths of the proposal include:

  • The value we see in the Montessori approach to instruction
  • Its approach to family engagement and partnership
  • Its approach to behavior management
  • The school’s commitment to diversity and ensuring access to families that might not otherwise have access to a Montessori educational option

However, the application continues to have a few areas that did not meet expectations. Those areas are primarily:

  • Lack of information on the number of students anticipated to be exempted from the lottery process
  • Lack of clear rationale and methodology for calculating goals on academic growth and proficiency
  • Lack of clear staffing model utilized to support the instructional model and the needs of the students in their demographic areas of focus such as English Language Learners (ELLs)
  • Overall budget assumptions that are critical to the financial sustainability of the model were not supported, including student enrollment projections, staffing model, estimates regarding number of students from within and out of the district, transportation costs, and fundraising revenue

Some background on the basics might be helpful. IMA will be an instrumentality charter within the Madison school district. Teachers and staff will become MMSD employees. MMSD policies will apply to the school. Practically speaking, there is not a lot of difference between an instrumentality charter school and a magnet school, like Spring Harbor and Wright (which recently transitioned from a charter to a magnet school).

Now on to my ten points:

 1.     Lost in the often vituperative back-and-forth about IMA is any consideration of what is best for Madison students. There is no question that some students who struggle in our neighborhood schools could thrive in a Montessori environment. Providing those students with a public Montessori option is inarguably a good thing.

2.     IMA becoming an MMSD charter school is not only good for students, it is also beneficial for the school’s teachers and staff. They will be paid more, will gain the protections set out in the MMSD employee handbook, and will be free to join Madison Teachers, Inc. if they choose.

3.     Moving on to the Toews statement, the superintendent’s memo identifies as a strength of the proposal “the value we see in the Montessori approach to instruction.” This makes it misleading at best to say that the district recommended against the proposal because it doesn’t meet academic standards.

4.     There is nothing in the superintendent’s memo about “demographic standards.” The district has the opportunity to help shape the demographics of the school by specifying its primary attendance area. It is important that the district do so carefully and purposefully so that, as much as possible, the demographics of the school mirror those of the school district.

5.     I am unaware of a basis for the assertion that IMA will cost the school district $375,000 per year.   Analysis of the net cost of the school to the school district is difficult because it depends on school enrollment and the number of students who would otherwise not be attending an MMSD school. Analysis is also complicated because our current charter policy imposes an unreasonably low per-student spending limit on new charters.  What is likely is that the first couple of years of the school will impose the highest net cost, and the costs will go down after that. The final memo to the School Board on IMA financials concluded, “We would expect revenues to trail expenditures in years 1 and 2, before nearly breaking even in year three.”

6.     It is false to assert that whatever net amount IMA costs will be “cost reduced from Lakeview, Gompers, Emerson, Mendota, Hawthorne, and Sandburg.” In light of our new referendum revenue authority, any net cost incurred when the charter school first opens for the 2018-19 school year can be absorbed in the school district’s budget without requiring cuts elsewhere. The allocations to north side schools will be unaffected.

7.     The areas of the IMA charter application that the superintendent’s memo identifies as not meeting expectations do not go to the heart of the proposal and should be addressed without much difficulty. For example, if the school’s staffing model falls short, the district can insist on beefing up the weak areas.

8.     Converting an existing private school into a district charter school can amount to innovation for the school district, if the new school offers a curricular approach that is currently not offered in the district. Assuming the financial impact is not out of line, the controlling question should be whether students overall are better off with the new option.

9.     Nicki Vander Meulen has expressed her opposition to IMA and any other charter proposal, regardless of their quality and their potential beneficial impact on our students, because charter schools use a lottery process to admit students if there are more applicants than slots available. This position is baffling. A lottery system is certainly the fairest way to admit students and is required by state law. It makes little sense to oppose charter schools because they may turn out to be so popular that some means is necessary to determine who among the many applicants will be able to attend the school.

10.     Concerns are rightly expressed about the dangers of privatizing our public schools. Approving the IMA proposal is step away from, not towards, privatization. If the school district had turned IMA down, the school could have sought to become a charter school authorized by the new Office of Educational Opportunity within the U.W. System. Under this approach, IMA would have become a stand-alone entity benefiting from state dollars but completely outside of the authority or control of the school district.

The primary purpose of the school district is to provide the best education possible to Madison students, regardless of their learning styles. The IMA charter school will further that purpose, at a tolerable cost to Madison taxpayers. There is work to be done to ensure that the demographics of the new school reflect the school district and to address remaining concerns about the proposal. But why flat-out opposition to the proposal should be considered a qualification for a school board candidate is a mystery to me.

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4 Responses to Fact-Checking School Board Campaign Claims About the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School Proposal.

  1. Clare Seguin says:

    On point #4: There is no precedence for your confidence in the district’s ability to create demographics in this school that will reflect those of its attendance are. This is a requirement of Nuestro Mundo, as stated in its charter, but has never been any where near reality. I have seen very little effort to rectify this situation. The charter is renewed without even discussion of this glaring problem, and Allis School reaps the fallout of uneven drawing off of students and families to Nuestro Mundo. There’s no reason to doubt this will be replicated on the north side if a charter is created.

    • Clare — This is a fair point and something to keep in mind. I do think that each school is different. Badger Rock, the district’s other current charter school, has quite a diverse enrollment. I believe the founders of IMS have a genuine interest in attracting a diverse group of students. They and the district will have to develop and implement a smart strategy to make sure it happens.

      • Clare Seguin says:

        Because I’m not confident this will happen, and for many other reasons, I feel the greater good of more students in our district would be best served by expanding the possibilities for teaching in our existing schools. Most teachers you talk to- particularly early elementary teachers- will tell you they want to have classrooms more like the Montessori model, if only the district would get out of the way or actually support them. Putting our limited money and effort toward one small charter school is the least effective use of our reasources I can possibly imagine. It may assuage one small, well-organized group of parents, but will make no difference for most of the students in our district- particularly the most needy.

  2. Mark says:

    Ed, I just learned of your withdrawal from the race for another term, and (vaguely) the reasons for it. I completely understand why you have made this choice, but just wanted to say we will miss your voice & powers of analysis on the board, and to wish the best of luck to your family in the days ahead. My thoughts are with you.

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