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Legislation May Chart New Course for Charter Schools

Legislation May Chart New Course for Charter Schools

Alan J. Borsuk| Journal Sentinel © 2011 YellowBrix, Inc.

I wrote several weeks ago (not in the newspaper) that education in Wisconsin was entering “unchartered” waters.

Oops. For one thing, I meant “uncharted” waters. A mental slip.

More important, the waters are, in reality, about to become increasingly chartered. Charter schools are in for major boosts, both in Milwaukee and statewide, if Republican proposals in the Legislature become law. In fact, a big step in that direction may come Wednesday when the state Senate Education Committee takes up three education bills.

But as more charter boats get launched, expectations rise for successful sailing. Will the resulting schools be piloted well? Will they set sail with enough skill and power to carry more kids to success?

“If we’re going to maintain our credibility and maintain legislative support, we’ve got to show that we’re not simply producing large numbers, we’re producing quality schools,” said Dennis Conta, who heads a coalition known as the Milwaukee Charter School Advocates.

Nationwide, the verdict is out on whether charter schools are a worthy innovation. The good ones offer important contributions to school improvement efforts. But, overall, those star schools are far outnumbered by charter schools where things aren’t more successful than nearby conventional schools. Sometimes they’re worse. There is no convincing case that charter schools overall have made things better.

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Wisconsin may well become a testing ground for whether there is hope for real change from charters.

The Senate committee is scheduled to take up three proposals Wednesday: the overhaul of Wisconsin’s charter law; the transfer of much of the power over unused buildings within the Milwaukee Public Schools system to city government, with the likely outcome that some of them would end up being used by non-MPS charter schools; and the end of the requirement that MPS employees live in the city of Milwaukee.

Each is backed by the Republican leadership in the Legislature, which makes their passage likely. There is opposition to all three. In the polarized, contentious and chaotic atmosphere of the Capitol right now, predicting smooth sailing for anything is naïve.

John Gee, executive director of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, said Wisconsin’s existing charter school law is one of the worst in the nation, in the eyes of charter school supporters. If the proposed law passes, the state will have one of the best laws in the United States, he said. In his view, there will be more charter schools, with more independence and more potential to meet ambitious goals.

Time for some basics: The charter school movement started about 20 years ago in Minnesota and has spread across the U.S. In Wisconsin this year, there are 206 charter schools serving 37,000 students, according to the charter schools association.

The notion of a charter school is that a government body gives a group permission to operate a school that, in some meaningful ways, is independent of the mainstream school system, provided the school meets specific goals for performance and achievement. Charter schools are publicly funded. They cannot be religious schools. The students take state standardized tests, and the schoolwide results are reported publicly. They often have distinctive programs.

In Wisconsin, all charter schools are authorized by local school boards, except for one in Racine that is chartered by the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and about a dozen and half in Milwaukee chartered by Milwaukee city government or UW-Milwaukee. The independent charter schools receive $7,775 a year from the state for each student, an amount that would stay the same in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget. Statewide growth possible

Among the proposed changes would be creating an authority that could charter schools anywhere in the state. Gee said that would lead to the rise of independent charter schools outside of Milwaukee and Racine.

Charter backers, particularly in Milwaukee, are eager to make it easier for national charter school operators to open in Milwaukee. A couple such companies are getting ready to open schools in Milwaukee this fall. Conta hopes that this is just a start and that high-quality, locally operated schools will also grow under a new law.

There are a couple dozen charter schools within MPS. Some of them might want to use the new law to leave MPS, which has been a frustrating authorizer in the view of many charter school leaders. But leaving MPS would exacerbate the programs of the troubled district. Although it sometimes doesn’t speak with one voice, the MPS system has been trying to encourage more charter schools to come under the MPS umbrella, largely to keep up enrollment and help the overall financial picture.

But even some non-charter MPS schools might consider leaving the system to become independent charters. Staff and parents at some of the best schools in the system – language immersion and Montessori schools, for example – are worried about what budget cuts will do to them and unhappy with the way they are being treated by the MPS central office. Will changes in state law make switching to independent charters feasible and appealing to some of them? That’s a particularly intriguing question at the moment.

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Much of what has been happening in the swirling world of Madison politics the last several weeks has had far more to do with power, partisanship and money than with what is good for students. It’s not clear whether anything that is going on at the moment will end up being good for students.

We really are in uncharted waters in terms of education in the state. But one aspect of all that is changing is the likelihood of a rising tide of charter schools. You have to hope that its force will carry a lot of kids to good places.

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School. He can be reached at alan.borsuk@marquette.edu.

© 2011 YellowBrix, Inc.


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