Milwaukee’s Charter Schools Don’t Make the Grade
By Lisa Kaiser Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015 Sheppard Express
If Republican lawmakers think that charter schools are an effective vehicle to increase student performance while providing public transparency, they should take another look at the city of Milwaukee’s experience with its 10 charter schools.
Four of these taxpayer-funded schools are doing so poorly that, according to their annual review, a case could be made for shuttering them.
And major pieces of information haven’t been offered to the Common Council members who are ultimately responsible for the 3,500 students who attend city charters—including the fact that the FBI raided the national operator of one local charter school.
Yet last Thursday, in a Steering and Rules Committee meeting, the Charter School Review Committee (CSRC)—an appointed body made up primarily of charter advocates who provide oversight of and evaluate the city’s charter schools—only recommended putting two schools on probation, Milwaukee Math and Science Academy (MMSA) on West Burleigh Avenue and King’s Academy on North 60th Street.
The CSRC gave Milwaukee Math and Science Academy a rating of 66.4% on its scorecard, a D grade, for the 2013-2014 school year, making it a “problematic/struggling” school. The state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) gave it 48.1 out of a possible 100 points for the same year. The DPI said it “failed to meet expectations.”
King’s Academy earned a 67% rating and a D+ from the CSRC but fared slightly better with its DPI scores: 67.3 points, which “meets expectations.”
But as dismal as those scores are, MMSA and King’s Academy aren’t the worst performers.
That dubious honor goes to North Point Lighthouse Charter School on West Douglas Avenue, which earned a 58.1% or F from the CSRC and a 29.4% from the state DPI. Since the 2013-2014 academic year was only its second year of operation, the CSRC recommended some strategies for improvement and a mid-year assessment of its progress. The school, part of the national Lighthouse Academies network, got financial assistance from tennis pro Andre Agassi’s Canyon-Agassi Charter Facilities Fund for its building.
When presenting their annual review of the city’s 10 charter schools last week, the CSRC limited the discussion to the schools’ academic performance—even omitting the fact that Concept Schools, the Illinois-based national operator of MMSA, has been raided by the FBI in four states as part of an investigation into possible financial fraud. Concept Schools is run by a Turkish Islamic cleric who lives in the Poconos and the organization brings in Turkish teachers on H-1B visas, which are meant for recruiting hard-to-find workers, primarily in the high-tech sector, and not K-12 teachers, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Jeanette Mitchell, chair of the CSRC, told the Steering and Rules Committee that she wasn’t aware of the FBI raids on Concept Schools, even though it’s been widely reported in the press. An MMSA representative denied that the federal investigation had anything to do with his charter school and said that none of the MMSA teachers are here on a H-1B visa.
But Marva Herndon of Schools and Communities United, a charter critic, told the aldermen that they needed to take an in-depth evaluation of the school.
“You really must take notice,” Herndon said.
Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy said he would look into the allegations.
A More Critical View of Charters
Charter critics provided a more robust view of the city’s program, arguing that it siphons off resources from Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and weakens the city’s fiscal picture; fails to shut down low-performing schools; and doesn’t provide enough transparency and accountability.
Jack Norman, a consultant for Schools and Communities United, argued that the charter advocates were providing an incomplete picture of the program for the council members. The CSRC doesn’t discipline schools that are new to the program, but Norman argued that some of the city’s failing charters have long track records as taxpayer-funded voucher schools that should be taken into consideration. The struggling King’s Academy, for example, began as a voucher school in 1999 and became a city charter school in 2010 and has been operating continuously for 15 years. MMSA can trace its lineage to Wisconsin Career Academy, an MPS charter school that was closed in 2012, as well as Wisconsin College Prep Academy, a voucher school that was shut down in 2013. He accused Lighthouse of “charter hopping or shopping” because it had received a charter from MPS and UW-Milwaukee before becoming a city charter.
Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, whose board chair is voucher architect Howard Fuller, opened as a voucher school in 2004, changed its name and became a charter in 2011, then changed its name again. The high school received a 68.2% or D+ from the CSRC, a “problematic/struggling” school.
Norman said the CSRC’s review included nothing about discipline, suspension or expulsion rates. He said data showed that Fuller’s high school expelled more than 10% of its students per year.
He also argued that the city’s charter school program affects the city’s financial outlook. The program destabilizes Milwaukee Public Schools by reducing student enrollment. A weakened MPS may not be able to make good on its bond payments and Norman warned that could make the city responsible for MPS’s debt. That’s because MPS is treated as a branch of city government for bonding.
“The city is ultimately on the hook for the $300-plus million in bonds that MPS has put out,” Norman said. “To the degree that MPS is put under greater financial pressures, in effect the city is, because the city is the ultimately responsible for that debt. In effect, the city charter program is helping to contribute to possible instability in the city’s own financial reporting.”
Hines Had Silenced the Critics
Last week’s presentation by the CSRC was unusual in that the Steering and Rules Committee allowed charter critics to voice their concerns in a public hearing.
In years past, then-Common Council President Willie Hines silenced opponents. As the Shepherd reported in December 2012, Hines went so far as to call security on charter critics who wanted to speak during a Steering and Rules Committee hearing on pending charter school applications. Hines’ brother runs the Darrell Lynn Hines College Preparatory Academy of Excellence, which received a 72.6% or C- from the CSRC last week, a “promising/good” rating.
Charter critic Fr. Tom Miller of MICAH also cried foul on the CSRC’s penchant for secrecy. For many years, the committee met at Howard Fuller’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, didn’t publicly notice their meetings and wouldn’t offer up their meeting agendas or minutes. The CSRC still doesn’t post audio or video recordings of their meetings on the city’s website.
Common Council President Murphy, however, seems to be taking a more skeptical view of the city’s charter schools than his predecessor and allowed charter opponents to make presentations last Thursday. He also called for more public transparency of the CSRC.
During last week’s hearing, he sharply critiqued the Republicans’ proposal to turn failing public schools into charters and made the point very personal.
“I daresay that none of [the Republican legislators] are thinking about turning the failing public schools over to a school like yours, to be perfectly blunt,” Murphy said to Lighthouse Academy Principal Rachel Wagner.
Murphy told the Shepherd he disagreed with Gov. Scott Walker’s argument that the marketplace would sort out the high-performing schools from low performers as parents would enroll their kids in quality schools. Murphy said Milwaukee’s experience showed otherwise. After all, he said, North Point Lighthouse Charter School is struggling, yet the majority of parents told the school’s evaluators that they thought their kids were getting a good education.
“It’s our responsibility, since we have the jurisdiction of overseeing this, to improve those schools or not allow them to operate in the city,” Murphy said.
Murphy said he was open to shutting down the city’s worst charters.
“It’s something I’m considering taking action on but it’s complicated,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t happen overnight nor should it, because you don’t want to put hundreds of students out on the street the next day. But it’s something that I’m going to talk to the review committee about. Perhaps we should be tightening up our standards of who participates in this program. I don’t like to see our kids experimented on.”