Understanding Wisconsin’s charter school debate
New legislation would ease process of starting these alternative schools; Experts still debate whether cheaper option good for education in long run
By George LeVines Tuesday, April 12, 2011 Badger herald
A contested bill recently introduced by the state Senate aims to ease the process of starting charter schools, allowing educators room to innovate in exchange for meeting strict expectations.
Wisconsin Charter School Association Executive Director John Gee said the climate for charter schools is ripe because of available federal grants. Last year the Department of Education gave out $138,005,068 to state education departments across the country for starting new charters.
While heated bills are currently making their way through statehouses nationwide, charter schools are still poorly understood.
Ray Budde, who taught education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, is credited with naming the charter concept and stating the ideas that led to school reform across the U.S. in his 1988 book “Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts”
The core of his mission was to deliver creative freedom with curriculum and instruction to innovative public school teachers in exchange for a greater responsibility over their student’s performance.
In 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school law in the nation, and California followed the year after. Today, charter laws appear in 41 different state constitutions.
A charter school is a primary or secondary, autonomous and public school. Children attend a school by choice, not residence location, and charter schools may not charge tuition. They are funded by the state, but like traditional public schools may accept outside donations.
According to Gee, the distinguishing characteristic of charter schools is their autonomy. They are separated from much state regulation for educational innovation in exchange for very strict accountability.
A school’s charter acts as a performance contract — defined by a state’s charter school laws — that holds schools accountable for student achievement. It defines goals, programs, communities served, assessment methods and missions set forth by a group of people who feel their current public system underserves them.
“There is a recognition that some school systems have become too bureaucratic and that they are not doing very well for the education of minority children,” said University of Wisconsin Educational Policy expert Michael Apple.
While every state’s charter laws differ, Wisconsin’s local school boards, universities and municipalities have authority to grant a charter. But a Senate bill authored by Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, would expand this authority to the state.
This year Wisconsin has 206 charter schools serving 37,000 students, according to the Wisconsin Charter School Association.
Besides a handful of charters authorized by local universities and municipalities in the Milwaukee and Racine areas, local school boards claim most charters in Wisconsin. Darling’s bill would create a state Charter School Authorizing Board.
Gee said the proliferation of charter schools allowed by expanding authorizing power to a state board would greatly improve education in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination is a standardized test used to evaluate all public schools, including charters. Gee said Milwaukee charter school scores were “off the charts” compared to Milwaukee Public Schools in the most recent release of test scores. Milwaukee currently hosts the highest concentration of charters in the state.
Funding is one of the many reasons people are eyeing charter schools. Though differences exist from state to state, most — including Wisconsin — choose to move funding from public schools to charter schools on a per student basis.
This means if a student from Memorial High School moves to a charter school, the dollars associated with the cost of educating that student also move.
Currently that amount is $7,775 per student per year and is not slated to change, according to Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill. Proponents of traditional public schooling argue this loss of funding hinders the goals public school districts have.
Some states, including Wisconsin, California, Michigan and Arizona, allow private for-profit organizations to run charter schools, raising what some say are ethical questions around the commodification of children’s education.
Progressives who started charter schools as a movement of small institutions worry about the conservative interest in using charters to privatize education and eliminate teacher’s unions. Apple said these suspicions are well founded.
In 2007, Jonathan Kozol for Harper’s Magazine warned K-12 education was the biggest market opportunity since privatizing health care services in the 1970s.
But Gee, who fully supports the bill and expansion of charters, said people who are worried about them becoming a tool of privatization and union busting are hurting their own cause.
Gee said without the education reform taking place within a public charter system, floundering public schooling systems are the excuse that conservatives are looking for to privatize education and push programs like voucher schooling, where the government subsidizes an individual student to go to a private school of their choice.
Milwaukee College Preparatory School Principal Robert Rauh thinks too few charters exist to have an impact on unions or education privatization.
Most evaluations of charter schools — from organizations like the Center for Research on Education Outcomes and the National Bureau of Economic Research — offer little conclusive evidence charter schools perform better or worse than traditional public schooling.
Proponents of charter schools say most of these evaluations are faulty in methodology, citing a heavy bias on standardized test scores, something many charters de-emphasize in favor of alternative instruction philosophies. The National Education Association says general comparisons between charter schools and traditional public schools is difficult, not to mention “scientifically invalid.”
Many charters serve as creative labs for new education policy and practice while veering away from traditional emphasis on math and reading abilities, a tradition that last week’s Distinguished Lecture Series speaker Ken Robinson said is plaguing education and may be responsible for the economic turmoil in the U.S.
However, conflicting views on the efficacy of charter schools and the progressive and conservative conflict over the use of charters leaves the future undecided.
Apple warns against ignoring public schools in favor of focusing charter school’s ability to improve education.
“They are not a solution,” he said. “The vast majority of students will still go to regular public schools, and I think we need to pay attention to those much more than we pay attention to the small number of people who are now or will go to charter schools.”