CITY BAN ON ‘CASH FOR KIDS’ SPEAKS TO BROADER STATE ISSUES
By Dominique Paul Noth Monday, October 20, 2014
It’s hard to applaud bravery with a cry of “More work to do!” But that should be the reaction to the Milwaukee Common Council’s unanimous ordinance October 14 barring financial incentives to lure children to its charter schools, demanding this bar be included in any charter agreements the city makes from this point on and urging the state to adopt similar rules to stop “cash for kids” by schools supported by government money.
This is legislative action at the city level that should stir a long overdue discussion in the state. It is already on the periphery of the governor’s race about the rules that should be in place for charter and voucher schools and aren’t, and horribly high taxpayer outlays ($192 million this year for state vouchers alone) that are making scant difference in quality for children.
To lay out the landscape in Milwaukee, multiple government agencies can approve K-12 charter schools, technically public schools though excused from many conditions, while a direct private or religious school program known as vouchers, or Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), has been expanded statewide by the administration of Scott Walker. In contrast, MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools system with its own publicly elected board) has never considered cash outlays to attract new students. They do occasional pancake breakfasts to encourage pupils to show up for the state count date. But UWM has let its authorized private charter schools use the cash or grocery card gimmick to attract students. It was this practice at its Urban Day School that first aroused ire.
The city ordinance is a firm no-no that covers only its dozen charter schools. It reads: Prohibited Practice a. No charter school shall offer money or any other thing of pecuniary value to a parent, student, teacher, staff member or any other person as an incentive for recruiting a student to enroll at a charter school. b. The prohibition shall be included in the charter school contract and may result in the termination or revocation of the charter school contract.
In making this move, the council also stiffed Milwaukee Charter School Advocates and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, organizations that knew better than to formally oppose but submitted an email of caution given their intrinsic involvement in these schools. Don’t “restrict its schools from using funds to encourage new enrollment,” they wrote the council, hoping the new ordinance would not eliminate offering free uniforms and the like.
The council was certainly polite but its substitute resolution 140912 put the onus back on the private schools about whether I-Pads, meals or uniforms for kids fall in the category of deceptive advantage.
The council reacted because charter schools were waving cash at adults who brought new students to the school by the signup date of September 19, when students have to be there to be counted for state revenue. To encourage parents in mainly poor areas to look at the money they can make rather than the curriculum and quality being offered children has been called flat bribery by community activists and MPS teachers who have staged protests around the issue.
That was in contrast to the original JS story that hinted this was just a shrewd marketing move in a competitive education field.
JS must know that in the public’s mind this per-student support for voucher and charter schools appears cheaper for taxpayers than what public schools with union teachers cost, so stealing $100 or $200 for non-education purpose from the taxpayer was excused as just the cost of competition.
That’s deceptive and obviously depends on ethics and values. Private schools pass off most special needs students to public school districts, which accept all comers and have expertly trained specialists. That public school ability to address individual needs of pupils is a big part of the costs, while Republican legislators pretend it is all about union vs. nonunion. Perhaps that is why private charter schools think it is no big deal to protect their bottom line by putting taxpayers’ dollars not into the classroom but into marketing.
That claim of being cheaper is suspect because this is not apples to apples. Initial funding for these charter schools and continued funding for voucher schools are hardly transparent even before the taxpayer steps in. A few of these schools fulfill the outlined mission of intelligent experimentation on education models. But they have advantages that school districts lack in buying or building the actual facilities, marketing looseness, short-term teachers and larger class sizes, not from classroom expertise if you accept the results of the limited testing allowed.
Full public schools face far more scrutiny despite critics who regard their procedures as restrictive. Public school advocates see their own mandated rules as built-in transparency protection for children against those who treat children as a financial opportunity and even parents who take a path of religious familiarity and marketing expertise over education outcomes.
Some educators see these charter private network and voucher practices as similar and aimed at destroying teaching as a career given the high turnover of the Teach for America participants. These college grads are personable but they have one eye on Wall Street and for many reasons less than half outlast their two year contract and several abandon it early. Long classroom work especially in poor economic regions always has high attrition, but brightness in college is proving not sufficient for retention, far less than long training and desire to teach.
And it’s no longer cheap for taxpayers. Even in 2012, voucher schools were allowed by Madison to serve families with twice Milwaukee’s medium income.
While the public still thinks cost per pupil hovers around $4,000 or $6,000 a year, that has long vanished. Under Walker’s administration costs have gone up faster than the low income levels that originally justified the creation of such schools. Now state taxpayer pay $8,075 per charter school kid though most users of this state aid were originally in a private school.
Voucher schools per pupil have jumped to $7,210 per K-8 student and $7,856 for high school in taxpayer aid.
Along the lines of hidden costs for the state taxpayer, the Oct. 15 figures of allocated state aid for education contain some disturbing numbers for Milwaukee. On the impending property tax bill if you don’t read one of the multiple inserts from the city, you might assume the public schools of MPS are the largest cost to property owners. In fact, when read correctly, the Milwaukee Public Schools and its current 79,000 schoolchildren drop out of first place. Under the state formula bookkeeping trickery, MPS is credited on the rolls with money it never sees and students it has lost to competition.
The uninformed public does not realize there are nearly 30,000 voucher and charter students receiving tax dollars that MPS cannot count as Milwaukee public students. Even city of Milwaukee charter schools receive state money (and federal grants) MPS never gets near. Yet the state’s tax cost formula muddies the waters.
There are 10 years left of the state voucher school tax and this year it diverts more than $61 million from MPS that is included in the MPS tax pie. The charter school movement in Milwaukee is growing though MPS’ own selective and tightly monitored charters are largely responsible for any decent comparative ratings. So MPS sees minimal return from the $9.3 million (of statewide $68.8 million) in Milwaukee taxpayer cost for charters. In essence that’s $65.6 million of the MPS levy going to voucher and independent charter schools, fully 20% of what the public thinks MPS is getting but never receives.
Yet the same city supplies the property tax bill and needs to do so much more to clarify it. And city charters also take money away from MPS, though this ordinance now finally insists on the behavior with state money that MPS has always done.
This Oct. 14 resolution was pushed by Ald. Nik Kovac and joined by the president of the common council, Michael Murphy.
Murphy replaced Willie Hines who left for another job and was seen as something of a rubber stamp for the city’s charter school committee. At the same aldermanic meeting where the new rules were discussed and headed for approval, the aldermen approved a new term for Mayor Barrett’s charter chair, Jeanette Mitchell, who formerly served on the MPS board and currently is close with Howard Fuller at Marquette University, whose division vets and approves city charter schools.
This resolution was an obvious good first step — particularly in protecting the reputation of city charter schools that have sprung up in poor communities where cash gifts may be particularly tempting. Paying an adult $100 at a UWM charter school (Urban Day) to bring in a new student, or giving them a $50 grocery card at another UWM school upset the community, but it was a city charter school’s effort to give $200 per pupil at Central City Cyberschool that spurred the Common Council into action.
And that was brave since UWM has not stepped in with similar strictures on its dozen charter schools nor has the state Department of Public Instruction even been asked for its opinion, which would have to go before a charter-happy legislature. The city is out there in lone legislative nobility.
On the other hand, this is only the obvious canker sore on the city charter body, which needs to be put under a more intense microscope for questionable practices. Murphy is facing pressure for remedial repair given a growing litany of problems.
Rocketship has technically been approved for seven more schools without re-examining the one it now runs on the South Side with less students and poorer results than originally promised, and Rocketship has delayed opening an inner city school, yet the city has not actively questioned its model. JS education reporter Erin Richards attended a detailed presentation at City Hall a day after she wrote about Rand Paul’s praise of school choice at a Milwaukee voucher school. She or her editors just ignored that presentation in print. It was a devastating and well researched academic study on Rocketship’s national behavior and secret intentions.
The city has also given regular charter renewal for a school named after Willie Hines’ brother despite constant failure in performance standards. It has approved other schools that miss their enrollment goals or lose students to MPS, which by law must take them, and it turns out to be part of the $100 million investigators claim has been wasted in ineffective or closed charter schools.
For years there has been a cozy relationship between the city charter approval process and the national charter groups that see profit in the nation’s 50 million schoolchildren or a political way to destroy the power and independence of public education, according to many reliable investigators.
Murphy and the council still have to step up to looking back as well as forward, to examine what other controls should be in place on how these schools lure students, what special rewards they bring to education (because despite the claims of choice, the fruit is in the results) and whether elected officials are being duped by secret money while also robbing taxpayers of the truly responsible choices offered by public schools.
Politically these privately operated or religiously operated schools have a public relations advantage with elected officials. Parents love their idea of “choice” since the schools receive taxpayer money in their name (sort of like buying someone else a car) and are seduced by the personal contact with their nervous youngsters at the school door and some hugs afterward. But the results on the whole demonstrate little in results and many losses in quality, stirring caring parents to regular flights back to public schools.
For the Common Council and other government entities, it’s time for some deeper fishing with stronger hooks.
About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with its still operative archives at milwaukeelabor.org. In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom’s Domain. He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com