Report Finds Huge Charter School Growth
3724% growth over 20 years for more independent MPS charter schools, while regular schools declined by 29%.
A report commissioned by the Milwaukee School Board in June 2021 released its findings last week and the numbers were stunning. Over a 20-year period, from 2000-01 to 2020-01, the number of students in the more independent Milwaukee Public Schools charter schools rose by 3724% while regular MPS enrollment declined by 29.5%. “Instrumentality” charter schools, which are staffed by MPS teachers and use MPS buildings, increased by 228% during that time.
The MPS charter schools which grew so much, called non-instrumentality (NIC) schools, have an independent board and non-MPS staff. Their growth, it must be noted, came off a very small base, increasing from just 204 students two decades ago to 7,801 students last school year. And the number has actually declined in recent years, dropping from a high of 8.768 in the 2016-17 school year. Still, the overall growth was quite striking when compared to enrollment in regular MPS schools, which dropped from 97,985 students twenty years ago to 69,115 students in the last school year.
The study also looked at independent schools chartered by UW-Milwaukee and the City of Milwaukee, which together served 9,616 students last year, but it does not track the growth since 2000-01, which is likely to be significant. The report only goes back eight years for these schools, showing a 14.5% decline in enrollment over this period, mostly driven by a decline at city chartered schools.
The study compared the demographics of students at regular MPS schools, the three kinds of charter schools, including the two MPS versions and independent ones (UWM and city charters) and there were some surprises. For starters, every kind of school was very diverse, all with at least 90% students of color. But the city chartered schools had the highest percentage of Black students (85%) and the UWM-chartered schools the highest percentage of Hispanic students (59%). The city and UWM schools also had a high percentage of poor students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, at 89% and 74% respectively, with regular MPS students falling between them, at 79%.
But what does emerge in the study is a significant difference across the board between regular MPS schools and its more independent NIC charters. The NIC schools have a much lower percentage of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch (57%) then both the MPS regular students and the UWM and city chartered schools. The NIC schools also had a percentage of special education students (just under 10%) that was about the same as the UWM and city chartered schools, but much lower than than at regular MPS schools.
By contrast the less independent MPS instrumental charter schools have almost exactly the same percentage of free and reduced price lunch students (just under 82%) and special education students (just under 20%) as the regular MPS schools.
In short, that stunning 3724% increase in enrollment over 20 years is for that class of MPS schools, the NIC charters, that have the lowest percentage of what are typically the most challenging students to educate.
Indeed, the report’s authors, who are researchers at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW-Madison, “note that the primary goal of this report is not to assess whether MPS charter schools as a group are performing better or worse than other types of schools, including MPS traditional schools nor charters overseen by other authorizers. Questions of this nature… have been the topic of extensive prior research that seems to be mostly inconclusive thus far.”
But it’s a safe bet that critics of charter schools, including some members of the Milwaukee School Board, may find some of the data in this report worrisome. The report’s researchers, interviewed leaders of MPS charter schools and found “a significant number of charter leaders express doubt about MPS’s long-term commitment to charters… and continue in some cases to wonder openly about whether they would be better able to fulfill their mission under a different authorizer. Some charter leaders clearly feel that the Board of Directors does not fully understand or appreciate the contributions and value their schools bring to the district and its families, and that they are increasingly viewed as a threat rather than as true partners.”
It remains to be seen if this report reduces or increases that tension between board members and charter schools.
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