Promising Wisconsin Charter School Proposal Suffocated by Defenders of the Education Establishment

MADISON, Wis. – For years thousands of minority students have struggled in the Madison public school system.

In 2010, for example, 87 percent of white students graduated on schedule, compared to only 48 percent of black students.

So the Urban League of Greater Madison proposed the establishment of a new charter school – Madison Preparatory Academy – to serve as an alternative for kids whose academic needs are not being met in traditional public schools.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin state law says most new charter schools must gain the permission of local school boards to open. And many school boards, along with their still very influential teachers unions, are cynical about opening new schools that will compete for students and the state dollars that follow them.

That regulation ended up killing Madison Prep before it got off the ground.

Just before Christmas the Madison School Board, yielding to pressure from the local teachers union, voted 5-2 to reject Madison Prep’s application to open two schools next fall, one for boys and one for girls.

That means thousands of minority students will continue to be stuck in sub-par neighborhood schools, despite the fact that many are learning little or nothing. That makes little difference to the school board and union, because they will get to keep the state money tied to those students, without any competitive pressure to better serve them.

The education establishment won again. Students, parents and taxpayers are the losers.

The Madison Prep tragedy underscores the need for Wisconsin lawmakers to consider a bill currently in the legislature that would create a new statewide entity to approve and govern new charter schools, without the interference of local school boards or teachers unions.

Until such a law is passed, Wisconsin charter schools that manage to open will remain a shadow of what they could be.

Jumping through bureaucratic hoops

The truly sick part of this story is that Madison Prep organizers were forced to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops to please the Madison school board and state officials.

They willingly did so in an effort to erase doubts about their proposed charter school’s value to the community.

The first issue arose earlier this year, when the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction announced that it would release half of Madison Prep’s $225,000 planning grant, but would withhold the other half until school organizers demonstrated the legality of single-sex schools, and provided scientific research demonstrating that they are academically effective.

The problem was that Madison Prep was originally supposed to be an all-boys charter school, to give struggling young men the chance to catch up on their studies without the natural distractions of the opposite sex.

Never mind that single-sex private schools have thrived and produced excellent students for centuries. Never mind that Urban Prep in Chicago, an all-boys charter school, has a very high college admission rate.

The state wanted to hear from some liberal professors that single-sex education is a good thing. And most liberal professors believe any type of exclusion is a bad thing.

Madison Prep organizers reacted by altering their plan, first by proposing a single school for boys and girls with segregated classrooms, then by proposing two separate schools for boys and girls.

Somehow that plan satisfied the state, but other concerns had to be addressed.

Charter schools are public schools and receive the per-pupil state grant that follows every student, just like traditional schools. Most of the students who would attend Madison Prep currently attend Madison schools, which means the local district would have lost the state money tied to those students.

Madison Prep organizers originally asked for $11,471 per year per student, significantly less than the $13,207 per year spent on middle- and high school students in traditional Madison public schools. The school district would keep the difference.

But school board members were reportedly worried about the loss of revenue. The charter organizers responded to that concern by searching for outside financial assistance.

They found more than $5 million in donations, including a $2.5 million gift from retired Madison business executive and former state commerce secretary Mary Burke. The donations allowed the Madison Prep organizers to lower their financial request to $9,400 per student in the first year, and $9,800 in years 2-5.

Overall the school was seeking $17.5 million of school district funds over five years, according to a report published by Madison.com. However, the school district anticipated saving $14.8 million because it wouldn’t have the expense of educating Madison Prep students. That means the district’s net investment in Madison Prep would have been only $2.7 million over five years.

“I understand we are in tight budget times and don’t want concerns about the cost of Madison Prep or the availability of public funding to supercede the need for the school board to approve it,” Burke was quoted as saying.

“I am confident Madison Prep will be a great opportunity for children and want to see it happen. I hope my gift helps the school board overcome its financial concerns.”

But, alas, the steadfast organizers of Madison Prep failed to consider the overwhelming costs of union labor.

Madison Prep based its initial budget on a very rational plan to pay teachers about $60,000, including salaries and benefits. Those numbers were based on a typical compensation package for a seventh-year teacher with a master’s degree in the Madison public school system.

Such a payment structure is not unusual for charter schools, which typically pay teachers less than traditional public schools because they receive less money than traditional schools.

But district officials told them they would have to hire union teachers, using the salary scale established in the teachers union collective bargaining agreement, just like schools in the rest of the district.

And according to the union contract, those teachers would have to be paid extra money for working more days and hours than other Madison teachers.

Suddenly the cost for teachers increased to about $76,000 for salary alone, and another $24,000 for benefits. That threw Madison Prep’s anticipated budget way out of whack.

Madison Prep organizers responded to the problem by reapplying to the school board as a proposed “noninstrumentality” charter school. That means the school would have been allowed to employ less expensive nonunion teachers and operate independently from the school board.

Noninstrumentality charters are rare in Wisconsin. State law forces most charter schools to exist under the controlling thumb of local school boards and teachers unions. That system destroys many of the unique characteristics that make many charter schools around the nation so successful and appealing to parents.

The noninstrumentality request was clearly a deal breaker for the teachers union. If a new school is not going to create dues-paying union jobs, the union will use its power to block the creation of that school.

As John Matthews, president of Madison Teachers Inc. (the union) wrote in the days before the school board vote, “The Urban League proposes to use district funds to hire non-district teaching staff at lower salaries and benefits than called for in the collective bargaining agreement. MTI cannot agree to enable that.”

Matthews went on to write, “It is also distasteful to MTI that the Urban League proposes to not additionally pay their proposed new hires for working a longer day and a longer school year.”

What if there are quality teachers out there who were willing to work longer hours for less pay at a charter school they believe in? Should the union have the right to block them from doing that?

In any case, the union came out against Madison Prep, and school board members Beth Moss, Arlene Silveira, Marj Passman, Maya Cole and Ed Hughes all voted to kill the proposed school. Interestingly, all but Moss had received prior election endorsements from the teachers union.

Now it’s back to the same-old, same-old for minority kids who have never done well in traditional Madison public schools. Oh well. At least the school district and the union won’t lose any students or state money.

In the end, that was the most important factor for the people calling the shots.

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