Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Report Finds Huge Charter School Growth

3724% growth over 20 years for more independent MPS charter schools, while regular schools declined by 29%.

By - Jan 18th, 2023 05:52 pm
School classroom. Image by Wokandapix on Pixabay

School classroom. Image by Wokandapix on Pixabay

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.

Two decades ago MPS had just NIC charter schools, but by last year there were 13, though this was down from 18 in 2016-17. Meanwhile there has much less growth in instrumentality charter schools with MPS staff, which rose from just 4 schools two decades ago to 30 in 2008-09 and then declined to just 6 last year. That temporary boom in instrumentality charters may have been fueled by a huge national infusion of funding for small schools by the Gates Foundation, observers suggest, funding which has since been discontinued.

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 there is a clear difference when it comes to special education students. While more than 20% of regular MPS enrollment is special education students, the percentage was considerably lower for for UWM charters (11%) and city charter schools (9%). This reinforces a charge by critics of charter schools, that they serve fewer of these students. The other criticism, that charter schools serve students and parents who are more motivated to succeed, was not discussed in this study and is difficult to measure.

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.

That might help explain other findings by the report: that the NIC schools had lower suspension rates over the years than the other charter schools and MPS regular schools. The NIC schools also had the highest percentage of students taking Advanced Placement courses. And the NIC schools and independent schools (UWM and city charters) tended to have slightly higher average growth in English and Math skills than the other schools. That said, the study presented so much achievement data that the differences were difficult to determine.

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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Categories: Education, Murphy's Law

9 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Report Finds Huge Charter School Growth”

  1. Ryan Cotic says:

    After looking at this study any parent in this city must ask a question? Why do we spend almost 80% more per student on MPS students with significantly worse outcomes? Why are we still operating traditional MPS schools? Am I missing something

  2. Thomas Sepllman says:

    YES As is pointed out MPS takes ALL children and takes back those that are rejected by ALL the other schools for starters. While it is also true that MPS fails to provide the THERAPY that ALL of the students MUST have who are being suspended much less expelled. Children are suspended / expelled because their behavior is socially unacceptable and why do children have socially unacceptable behavior because they have been traumatized. When or when will MPS and the Milwaukee Community STOP blaming the children and start providing the therapy (in its many forms) that ALL traumatized children require if they are going to heal.

    Feel free to call me if you wish to have a discussion about this 414 403 1341

  3. says:

    This decentralized system of schools undercuts the public school system. MPS continues to try tp provide quality education despite the financial impact the City and UWM charter schools have on its finance.(along with voucher schools) Either the report did not mention it or Bruce did not report on it. Also, there is no disaggregation of data which would likely show that a few schools in the charter program have more middle class populations and have higher test scores that help show overall higher test scores (not that test scores are the only or most important criteria to judge a school).

  4. keewaysservices says:

    MPS must provide more direct services to students with behaviors which may reflect trauma. MPS should develop areas within the building to serve students specifically with behavior issues and other social issues.
    MPS will continue to have declining enrollment if classroom behavior is not managed.

  5. David Coles says:

    “But the city chartered schools had the highest percentage of Black students (85%)…” It is a mistake to describe this as “diverse,” Bruce. This is de facto segregation.

  6. Mingus says:

    If a school, choice or charter, wants to be a “high achieving school”, they just have to find ways of recruiting high achieving students from supportive families and and find ways to purge the difficult to educate students out of the program. I have never understood why sone media entity or foundation has not done a study of successful adults in Milwaukee who attended any MPS, Choice, or Charter School and looked for what characteristics and experiences these persons have in common. I think that the research would show that most of these persons come from families that are engaged in their children’s education and would dispute the presumption that “failing schools” are totally responsive for poor school achievement.

  7. Thomas Sepllman says:

    Dear Mingus If that was the question you have the answer. The question is what does MPS Milwaukee do for those children who are not so luck to have a loving and caring family. Those children have suffered trauma in its many forms and UNTIL we address that TRAUMA we will continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars prisons thinking in some way that we are better because they are locked up. We do not even provide the therapy they those who are incarcerated NEED so they can HEAL.

  8. Mingus says:

    MPS along with the major behavioral health agencies in Milwaukee have made mental health services a priority for a number of years. The numbers of pupil personnel service providers in school have greatly expanded along with specialized training. Many schools have community based therapists providing services directly to students in schools. Dealing with trauma is part of supporting students but it is hardly the only factor in improving educational outcomes in Milwaukee.

  9. Thomas Sepllman says:

    Hi Mingus Glad to hear that MPS has increased its mental health services. A while back I tried to get the current data on suspensions and was ignored which worked as I did not go back and try a second time. Maybe you can get the suspension data? Again it is all about trauma and the socially unacceptable behavior of those children who are suspended that is the source of the violence in Milwaukee. Yes we always claim that there are “other” factors but the dominated factor is suspending children whose brains are developing and in some cases have stopped developing because of the trauma that they are experiencing.

    If we really want to make some progress we should do an in depth study of all the children who are in all likelihood “guilty” of the socially unacceptable behavior that they are accused of and SEE where Milwaukee FAILED each of these children. Milwaukee DID FAIL then. We are the adults they are children with developing minds. Then we will know where to add programs etc

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