Why Doesn’t Milwaukee Embrace Charter Schools?
Data shows they work better than MPS schools, but board adamantly opposes them.
This past week has not been a good one for the Milwaukee School Board. Up until now, it has successfully blocked proposals from the Milwaukee Public Schools administration to solicit proposals from charter schools to turn around some of Milwaukee’s lowest-performing public schools. But the state legislature is now poised to give two individuals the authority to solicit such turnaround proposals without seeking permission from the board: a commissioner appointed by the Milwaukee County Executive and the MPS superintendent herself.
The need for a strategy for turning around low-performing schools in Milwaukee has long been evident. (I should note I previously served on the Milwaukee School Board.) The chart to the right shows the 4th and 8th grade average reading and math scores for a sample of low income students who attend one of the large school districts that participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s Trial Urban District Assessment. The scores for Milwaukee Public Schools is shown in a different color, green for fourth grade and orange for 8th grade.
While MPS is not at the very bottom among its peers, it is clear that other districts with many of the same challenges are doing better. All the MPS scores fall well below those of the average urban district. Is it possible to change this?
Early last year, then-superintendent Gregory Thornton presented a plan that would have targeted 25 low-performing schools for various turnaround strategies. Thornton’s proposal was rejected by the board.
The board’s primary objection was that Thornton’s proposal envisioned soliciting proposals from operators of successful charter schools in Milwaukee and nationwide to operate some of the schools targeted because of their low performance.
The board’s opposition to charters has only hardened since. I recently served on MPS’ Charter Review Committee. The number of applications was down from previous years—only two–likely reflecting a growing view that MPS is not friendly to charter proposals. An extremely well-written proposal for a non-instrumentality school (a non-instrumentality is one that need not use union teachers) was unanimously recommended by the outside members of the review committee, but opposed by the two board members. When the committee’s recommendation went to the full board, it was rejected. A major objection was that the proposed school was likely to be too demanding of the inner-city students it targeted.
Similar opposition help kill a proposal for Carmen High School, a highly rated charter high school, to take over the management of Bradley Tech, MPS’ lowest performing high school.
Thornton’s plan was rejected because it envisioned converting some of the schools to charter schools. Before looking at the reasons behind the hostility to charter schools, it is useful to review the evidence on their effectiveness.
As with traditional public schools, charters’ performance varies widely from one school to another. Governance is not destiny. However, on average, charter schools outperform traditional public schools, both in Milwaukee and nationally, particularly in educating low-income children.
This was found by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), which compared outcomes for charter school students in Milwaukee with those of similar students attending traditional public schools. As shown on the right, only one charter school (3 percent of the total) performed worse statistically than the average traditional public school, while the rest performed the same (53 percent for reading, 37 percent for math) or better (44 percent for reading, 60 percent for math).
The difference also shows up in data published by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Using DPI data, a recent Public Policy Forum report calculated the percentage of students in MPS, non-MPS charters, and the school voucher program who scored proficient or above on the most recent state exams. The results are summarized in the chart to the right and show that non-MPS charter schools did by far the best of the three groups. It is no accident that a letter opposing the legislature’s opposed change in governance signed by the board president and MPS superintendent used the PPF comparison between MPS and voucher schools, but ignored the charter schools.
It is important to recognize that low-income students face many challenges in their lives that have little to do with schools. However, in Milwaukee, this recognition too often turns into resignation, that there is little the schools can do until all the other barriers faced by children growing up in poverty are removed. But the evidence suggests that schools can do a lot.
Why has opposition to charter schools grown on the Milwaukee school board? Part of the cause reflects economic interest. The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) drives the opposition. When enrollment shifts from traditional public schools to charter schools that hire their own teachers, MTEA membership suffers. As the only major player in recent school board elections, the MTEA enjoys considerable influence over the board.
A second factor driving the board’s opposition is Ideology. The right wing has no monopoly on ideologically based decision making. This shows up in an obsession with New Orleans where, following Katrina, charter schools have largely replaced traditional public schools.
Earlier this year, the MTEA sponsored a conference on New Orleans, inviting three critics of that city’s transition to speak in Milwaukee. One was Kristin Burus, a faculty member at Georgia State University. The following diagram, taken from a Burus article, shows the “lines of influence” among the organizations and individuals in New Orleans. Except for the fact that it was published in a journal that describes itself as peer-reviewed, with minor modifications it might have appeared on a right-wing website, one, say, obsessed about the Common Core imposed by a “socialistic” Obama administration.
In addition to local groups, the arrows point to many of the major players involved with educational reform, including the Broad and Gates foundations, Teach for American, New Leaders for New Schools, The New Teacher Project, Democrats for School Reform, various charter school management organizations such as KIPP, and the Obama Administration including the Department of Education and its Race to the Top initiative.
Most of the groups and individuals in Burus’ web are pretty middle of the road, if anything more likely to appear in a Hillary Clinton administration than a Scott Walker administration (particularly if Walker continues his opposition to the Common Core). One genuinely conservative organization is included–the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose connection is through Governor Jindal. But Jindal is a relative newcomer; the New Orleans school redesign was largely done when Democrats still held power in Louisiana. In a more recent article in the Progressive, Burus credits the Heritage Foundation as the conspiracy mastermind.
For many reasons it would have been better if the board had been able to free itself sufficiently from ideology and the influence of the MTEA to let the administration move forward on plans to turn around low-achievement schools and to evaluate charter proposals on their merits. If nothing else, this would have demonstrated that Milwaukee could solve its own problems. The move by three board members to give the superintendent the freedom to act on her own authority was constructive but came too late to change the legislative process. It does appear, however, to have been incorporated in the legislation.
As a reason for rejecting Thornton’s proposal last year, board members referred to legislation circulating in Madison to remove failing schools from the control of the board, the ancestor of the measure now on its way to becoming law. Ironically, by confirming the perception that the board was unable to make the hard decisions needed to improve MPS, the board contributed to an outcome which could leave it cut out of some major decisions. Sometimes people contribute to the very result they most fear.
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28 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Why Doesn’t Milwaukee Embrace Charter Schools?”
I tried to make it to the end, i really did, but it was a tough read.
Nowhere in there do you say why you think a change in governance would turn around a school. Instead you r paint any opposition as ‘obsessed’ with ‘conspiracies’. I support charter schools but haven’t seen anything to make me believe that a fixed group of kids would improve by having their school be a charter school instead of a public school.
I’ll tell you one reason why a charter school will do better than a public school with a “fixed group of kids”: They can boot out ones that have no interest in being there or are unruly/disruptive. A charter school has more flexibility to get rid of students and provide a better learning environment. MPS, well…. you put the future criminals of Wisconsin right next to the ones trying to make a better life for themselves. That’s messed up!
@Michael- Charter schools are public schools. Too often in these conversations people confuse charter for voucher.
Milwaukee is so conditioned to turning every discussion of school improvement solely into a question of governance that facts are often rendered irrelevant. The facts in this case tell us that, overall, kids are learning more in independently chartered schools. The difference is not in who’s calling the shots. It’s in the shots they are calling. The facts here indicate that the leadership, teaching and school-culture decisions made in these charter schools are hitting the target better.
If “special needs” & “inner city” children require the most resources & more attention, then why not have charter schools focus on them? If they succeed then the argument would be over & wouldn’t that create a “win-win” situation? Public schools would be relieved of some of the burden while charter schools would be benefiting society a whole lot better than cherry picking students that will be successful no matter who is teaching them. Just a thought.
Is there any evidence that schools such as Bruce Guadalupe, or Carmen, or Milwaukee College Prep “cherry pick” students? these are all public schools, as well as charters.
Indeed many conflate vouchers ( who can and do cherry pick) with charters, much to the detriment of everyone involved.
Nicholas – High performing “public” schools (including Carmen) do cherry pick. They have application processes that look at grades, test scores, personal essays, performance requirements (King, Riverside, MSL, MSOA, Reagan). By law, voucher schools cannot refuse a student if the school has room. By law, they are not allowed to look at grades or any other data when receiving a new student. What happens in voucher schools is the same thing that public schools do…..get them in, get them signed up, hold on to them until 3rd Friday (the day the student population count establishes the budget for the year), then dump them back into the lower performing public schools. It’s a game that EVERY school plays, but only vouchers get criticized for it.
Walker – the public schools have the facilities and the budgets to provide for the additional needs of the students with disabilities; charters do not. One of the reasons charter schools can be more effective is their smaller size. That smaller size, however, does not allow them to have a budget large enough to effectively service students with extra needs because budgets are based on numbers.
A key point in the article is, “When the committee’s recommendation went to the full board, it was rejected. A major objection was that the proposed school was likely to be too demanding of the inner-city students it targeted.”
I know there aren’t many Bush II lovers (or likers, for that matter), but his speech line about the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is alive and well in urban America.
I would like to see the statistics on charter graduation rates vs public graduation rates. I used to work in a charter school that was “high performing” yet only 40% of our students graduated. This leads me to agree with the charters cherry pick their students arguments. Also, we should take a close look at where charters spend their campaign donations. Too often the charter agenda is pushed by politicians who gain significantly from an increase in charter schools. Lastly, where are the statistics on charter longevity? Who is to say over time they wont succumb to the same issues that plague traditional schools now. Instead of giving up on traditional public schools we should reinvigorate them. This article is unfair and you should publish a response to the many comments here. Most of the time I really like the Data Wonk series but this one was shoddily put together with a clear goal in mind.
Charter, voucher and magnet schools for that matter, cherry pick students by design. Entrance tests, requirements that students’ parents attend an open house, lotteries are all ways that students and parents with more social capital get into schools with higher achieving students.
Fact: charter schools in Milwaukee have fewer students with disabilities in them.
Fact: charter schools in Milwaukee can expel students easier than MPS schools and then those students end up in the regular MPS schools and yuppies like Bruce Thompson say “see those schools are low performing.”
Fact: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are supporters of charter schools and Bruce Thompson is trying to, once again, marginalize those who do not support charters by making them out as left wing whack jobs.
You will have your data soon on privatization as the small government legislature has just signed the death sentence for MPS.
I’m sure this doesn’t apply to all charters, but the charter school I taught in had huge classroom sizes (around 30-35) and very few resources. I had no textbooks and was told to put together my own curriculum with whatever I could find. Yet we took an annual 5-day trip to NYC for professional development. Leadership was terrible. The principal was from the business world and had no idea how to run a school.
According to the Public Policy Forum, MPS had a graduation rate of 61.3%. The figure for the non-MPS charters was 90.5%. One should be very cautious about generalizing from this, since there were only 4 charters that went through 12th grade.
Philosophical question to the group……is there anything wrong with cherry picking? The ability to choose who can stay and who must leave works and is necessary in every organization. Buy in or get out. It makes sense to have people with similar goals working together and moving in the same direction. Not every student who goes to Marquette High School is Catholic, but those who are not buy into the broader appeal of the school in both sports and academics and work within that system without trying to change it to obtain those benefits. It reminds me of a line from the Brendan Fraser movie, “School Ties.” In it, the athletic but poor Brendan Fraser character decides to stay in an institution with rampant anti-semitism (he was Jewish), to obtain the benefits of the school saying, “You use me for football. I’m going to use you to get into Harvard.”
For those who do not want to participate or buy in to a particular charter school, they have the option of attending one of the public schools that have no particular mission or culture. School of the Arts students have to buy in to and participate in the arts culture. Similarly, students at Milwaukee School of Languages have to participate in various language programs and the culture of that school. This exclusivity helps keep them strong. It’s similar at King and Reagan with their IB programs. They have a culture that students need to buy in to or they get shuffled out.
So what works for organizations should be the same for education? We should run schools like businesses?
@PMD I don’t think its necessarily what works in business but maybe what gets humans to cooperate and succeed no matter the setting…sports, business or education. Stakeholders need to feel they have a part and the benefit they receive from contributing.
“Philosophical question to the group……is there anything wrong with cherry picking?”
Yes because the goal of cherry picking is usually furthering ethnic and class inequality. We have a long history of explicitly doing this.
In a word it is about democracy. If we are truly committed to a society that will provide equal opportunity we will not segregate students into “good” and “bad” schools. That being said I am not opposed to specialty schools like arts or technical schools.
Labitokov – where do you get the idea that cherry picking is usually for furthering ethnic and class inequality? Just look at open enrollment….suburban schools (Muskego, Germantown, etc) cherry picking high quality athletes (of color) to come to their predominately white schools. If those kids would have been stuck at Custer or Washington in the name of “democracy,” they wouldn’t have gotten scholarship opportunities to to Madison or other Division I schools. Casey says it correctly that people of a like mind help make an organization run better.
Currently, the opportunity to get out of low performing schools is reserved for those who have a skill, a talent, can make it through the application process, or get a voucher. Wouldn’t it be more democratic to expand those opportunities to a wider variety of students? By reducing options for students to avoid bad schools, you are ensuring they do remain segregated into good and bad and perpetuating that lack of equal opportunity.
PMD – I’m not saying that schools should be run like businesses, but schools are organizations, and, as such, benefit from buy in to common organizational goals and culture.
Vouchers were allegedly intended to get poor kids out of low-performing schools, but it turns out the majority of voucher recipients were already paying to attend a private school. So who are the vouchers really helping? And should taxpayer dollars really pay for kids to attend religious schools that teach creationism and other nonsense?
“Just look at open enrollment….suburban schools (Muskego, Germantown, etc) cherry picking high quality athletes (of color) to come to their predominately white schools. If those kids would have been stuck at Custer or Washington in the name of “democracy,” they wouldn’t have gotten scholarship opportunities to to Madison or other Division I schools. Casey says it correctly that people of a like mind help make an organization run better.”
Seriously, this is your answer to the institutional racism of the US and the City of Milwaukee that has existed over the last 200 plus years, that we should ship a few black basketball players to Germantown?
I recommend you read this article on white supremacy by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic and Barb Miner on the Milwaukee Public Schools.
Is there institutional racism in the US and Milwaukee? Absolutely. Does it effect childrens’ education? Yes. But the struggles inner city minorities face in school isn’t too radically different from what poor white kids up in the woods struggle with. Racism=Poverty=Poor Education. Even if we erase racism we still have to deal with the effects of poverty as shown by struggling white families.
My family works hard and did not want our daughters in MPS but still wanted to live on the same block as our family members so we chose to go the path of open enrollment and are very thankful that they go to Shorewood and it seems that Shorewood welcomes the diversity (for the most part) that our family brings. If there were no spots in Shorewood the next step was to find a charter school or Montessori.
Labitokov- where is the racism in that?
Casey do you draw a distinction between charters and vouchers or do you support both since both offer an alternative to MPS?
@Joe- not all open enrollment minority kids are athletes…..ever occur to you that some just want something better besides a sports scholarship?
PMD- Initially I supported voucher schools because I really thought they would be of benefit but what I’ve seen locally is that the quality just isn’t there and its more about capturing voucher dollars. Its sad that something that I thought had so much potential turned in to what we have here. I don’t know what other voucher schools look like around the nation so not sure if its uniquely a MKE problem.
One more thing about Charter schools. Growing up it seemed like charters benefited in my eyes either the very rich (in reality probably upper middle class) or the very poor because it was those two classes that seemed like the parents had the extra time to prep and fight to get their kids into those schools. For the poor kids that meant now their parents had a more vested intrest in making sure they did well. Most of those kids still had struggles but compared to guys that went to regular public school the poor charter school kids seemed to be doing better but I think that comes from the greater parental envolvement.
Labitiokov – you entirely missed my point. You said cherry picking was proof of racism. I said that wasn’t necessarily the case and gave examples of how it wasn’t. Let me make it easier for you. Take Washington HS, for example. By all accounts it’s an all black school. If I were to take the top 10% of those students and the top 10% from Custer and North (both essentially all black schools) and created a charter school on the north side; I just cherry picked all black kids and created an all black school. How is that racist? I think you’re reading race into places where it isn’t.
Can you name some of the institutions in Milwaukee that are racist for me? The book said that MPS is. I find that interesting. The article talks primarily about a school in Tuscaloosa. I’m not sure what that has to do with Milwaukee, but there was a passing mention that some schools in the Midwest are so-called “apartheid” schools. In Milwaukee, we have another name for them….neighborhood schools. Doesn’t it make sense that the racial make up of a school would closely relate to, if not exactly mimic, the racial make up of the neighborhood it is in? That seems like a no-brainer, but apparently that’s another sign of racism. I had no idea that parents wanting to send their kids to a school they could walk to is racist.
MPS doesn’t have a very strong academic record, so some people decide to send their kids to private schools. Let me guess, that’s racist, too, right? Now, is it racist when a black family does that? No, it isn’t. It’s smart. It’s parents making sacrifices so their children can fare a little better. You want real racism? The Milwaukee school board objecting to a charter school because it might be too difficult. People fighting tooth and nail to make sure as few students as possible have a choice other than MPS is racism. You may be right that there is institutional racism……no school choice, welfare expansions, turning urban areas into tax islands that prevent businesses from moving in, no chase policies for police, refusing to jail violent offenders and trying to return them to schools (remember, the ones that all city kids have to attend). Yes, look at the racism of these policies and then tell me who is creating and enforcing these policies?
Casey – I do know that not all open enrollment students are athletes. Be careful, though. Apparently escaping MPS makes you racist because it means you’re contributing to the idea of an apartheid school…….according to the editorial that Labitokov posted anyway. I live in Milwaukee, and I opt out of MPS as well. Shorewood is a great school district. You’re lucky to be there.
Yes, charter schools are public. And yes, many students would benefit from the disruptive ones being kicked out. But the problem is that we are creating a parallel school district. This parallel school district gets less funding per student and is not able to administer to special needs kids. as the number of mps schools shrink, they are not going to be able to support the magnet and specialty schools (Montessori, arts) that they do now and more charter school rejects will be shoved into them continuing the cycle. Ultimately the students are going to suffer because of the highly fractured cost of maintaining these parallel districts which won’t be able to achieve the efficiencies that a large school system could.
By converting a school from traditional public to charter you may be able to turn around the school but that doesn’t mean you have turned around any students. All you may end up doing is shuffling top students around a handful of independent schools. Students won’t learn more, services will just decrease with the decrease in per student cost. Which is all some folks in Madison care about.
“Labitiokov – you entirely missed my point. You said cherry picking was proof of racism. I said that wasn’t necessarily the case and gave examples of how it wasn’t. Let me make it easier for you. Take Washington HS, for example. By all accounts it’s an all black school. If I were to take the top 10% of those students and the top 10% from Custer and North (both essentially all black schools) and created a charter school on the north side; I just cherry picked all black kids and created an all black school. How is that racist? I think you’re reading race into places where it isn’t.”
Why are we taking the top 10% of black students and doing anything with them? Do you understand how paternalistic you sound?
“Reading race into places where it isn’t?” Milwaukee’s (city) white population is 47%, in MPS the white population is 11.9%. Housing segregation is at Jim Crow levels and we’re number 1 in Black incarceration rates! The economic indicators along ethnic lines are just as dismal. Race is THE defining issue in our city, particularly when it comes to education. They cannot be divorced from the conversation.
“Can you name some of the institutions in Milwaukee that are racist for me?” I mentioned a number of institutional factors above. The Constitution was born with explicit racism in it. Not until the 1960’s did the national government begin to take the 14th Amendment at all seriously and today the nation seems tired of the promise of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Our city and state cannot divorce ourselves from that history. The current social crisis in Milwaukee is part of that history.
My individual actions and our collective decisions take a stand to fix these issues, ignore them or make them worse. I think charter schools, vouchers and cherry picking students will make them worse.
“MPS doesn’t have a very strong academic record, so some people decide to send their kids to private schools. Let me guess, that’s racist, too, right? Now, is it racist when a black family does that? No, it isn’t. It’s smart. It’s parents making sacrifices so their children can fare a little better.”
The students of Milwaukee do not have a strong academic record. The students of Detroit also have a weak academic record. The students of Whitefish Bay do. I wonder why? Hint, it’s not the teachers and the governance structure.
It is not just “some” people who are sending their kids to private schools it is white people who started to do this when the schools were integrated.
Yes, our actions are either making the problem worse, ignoring it or try to make it better.
“You want real racism?”
“The Milwaukee school board objecting to a charter school because it might be too difficult. People fighting tooth and nail to make sure as few students as possible have a choice other than MPS is racism.”
Charter schools, that have cherry picked students, have fewer students with disabilities and kick out the students that are more difficult marginally have better test scores. This does not mean that an expansion of charters would improve the lot of the highly segregated MPS’s The board made the decision to not expand some charter schools because the proof that they can do a better job is not there.
By the way 40% of the students that used to be in MPS are now in charters or vouchers. The idea that the MPS school board has been reticent to reform is baloney. We have more charters and voucher schools here than just about anywhere in the country.
“You may be right that there is institutional racism……no school choice, welfare expansions, turning urban areas into tax islands that prevent businesses from moving in, no chase policies for police, refusing to jail violent offenders and trying to return them to schools (remember, the ones that all city kids have to attend). Yes, look at the racism of these policies and then tell me who is creating and enforcing these policies?”
Now we get to the crux of your overarching ideology. It’s the moochers and criminals. I wonder what color they are?.
I rest my case.
So Joe what do you see as the ideal for the school system in Milwaukee? We have some high-performing public schools and we have some high-performing charter schools. We also have a ton of low-performing public and charter schools. At this point does it make the most sense to create two separate school systems and have each build on the existing successes they have? Do we attempt to have one system that includes public and charter schools?