The Failure of Corporate Charter Schools
They haven’t done so well in Milwaukee.
The charter school movement was a grassroots, up-from-the-bottom school reform beginning in 1992. Milwaukee followed that model of chartering schools. But a decade later, a corporate model began to emerge with providers trying to become the Walmart or Target of the charter school industry. Today those plans look more like a bankrupt Sears, both in Milwaukee and across the nation.
American Quality Schools
When American Quality Schools (AQS) applied for an MPS charter in 2012, it had 16 schools in 3 states. As a school board member, I looked into AQS operations as problems began to emerge. The board ultimately turned down the charter. Today AQS has lost all its charters except one, and that is in danger of closing.
Part of AQS’s problem was its business model. In many schools, AQS did not hold the charter but only a contract to manage the operations for the original chartering organizations. When the contracts were up, the organizations either decided to go with another provider or cut out the middleman and run the schools themselves.
AQS did not have a stellar track record. That may be because it took the model of its Plato school in Chicago and tried to apply it to other schools across the board, making few modifications for local needs. When AQS examined the Milwaukee Public Schools’ specifications, the response from its CEO was, “That is not how we charter schools.”
Former MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton supported Universal school from Philadelphia in 2013. It was going to service its Milwaukee charters from Philadelphia. They were told to have a local executive to oversee the operation. The individual Universal picked was a principal, then well-respected, from a Milwaukee private school. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a pedophile. Within a few years, Universal filed for bankruptcy and closed its schools in both Milwaukee and Philadelphia, and faced criminal charges for bribery, implicating then-Milwaukee School Board President Michael Bonds.
Rocketship is a non-profit but also had a goal of growing a chain of schools. (It has 13 in California alone.) Back in 2012, Rocketship made a proposal to open 8 schools in Milwaukee enrolling 4,000 students chartering through the City of Milwaukee. But it never got close: Today it has two schools with a total enrollment of 706 students.
While Rocketship schools have been lauded for high test scores, its critics have charged that Rocketship abandoned all other aspects of education that is not measured on standardized tests: that the schools sit students down in front of computers for hours on end and follow a strict “no nonsense” discipline code. Rocketship believes that the criticism is unfair, but is addressing some of those concerns. Nevertheless, Milwaukee Rocketship schools are unlikely to ever reach the 4,000 enrollment. Its north-side school had just 204 students at last count.
Milwaukee Charters Today
Corporate charters in Milwaukee mostly failed or never got much traction. Today, Milwaukee charters look more like the grassroots models of old. Two local “mini” systems exist: Carmen and College Prep. The rest are mostly stand-alone operations.
National private school chains thought they could create cookie cutter charter schools nationally. They ran into a complex set of shifting rules, regulations and reporting procedures varying from one state or community to the next. Citizens were used to going to school board meetings and airing their concerns at open mike sessions demanding modifications.
Many parents and education advocates were unwilling to trade that for a large school corporation operating a thousand or more miles away.
What is the future for charter schools? Neither Carmen nor College Prep schools show any desire to dramatically increase the number of schools they operate. Other smaller operations might increase their student population, such as Hmong American Peace Academy, which is expanding its present main facility to bring two other satellite locations under one roof.
MPS still sees its main competitor for students as open enrollment to suburban districts. Charter schools in Milwaukee may continue to grow at a slow, deliberate pace. But it seems unlikely we will ever see a charter chain of Golden Arches or Amazon schools in your neighborhood.
Correction: The original version of this story failed to note that Rocketship in a non-profit entity and wrongly said its original plan was to enroll 8,000 students in Milwaukee (the goal was 4,000) and said its total current enrollment was 550 students (the correct total is 706 students). We apologize for the errors.
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