Will New State Legislation Give MPS Schools to National Charter School Companies?
By Lisa Kaiser Sheppard Express 3/24/15
Wisconsin Republicans have the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) in their sights.
That’s nothing new. Conservative Republicans have attacked public schools, and MPS and its unions in particular, for years.
But what is novel is a proposal for the state to, in essence, take over “failing” MPS schools and turn them into taxpayer-funded charter schools.
State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) offered that proposal in their “New Opportunities for Milwaukee Plan,” which targets education and job creation in the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods. A highlight of their education proposal would create a “turnaround school model in Milwaukee [that] would operate outside of the traditional bureaucracy that stymies reform.” The Republicans would create a board to oversee a turnaround school initiative for all Milwaukee schools that fail to meet expectations. Darling and Kooyenga would also allow high-performing charter schools to replicate without getting additional authorization from any other entity. Currently, charters in the city are granted by UW-Milwaukee, MPS, the city and MATC, although the technical college hasn’t used this power.
Additionally, Darling and Kooyenga would like to create “free-market zones” in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, with no corporate income tax, right-to-work policies (they wrote their plan before the Legislature passed the state-level law) and the use of social impact bonds to allow entrepreneurs to ease their focus on profits.
What’s more, Gov. Scott Walker also promotes charter schools in his proposed two-year budget. He’d like to set up a state-level Charter School Oversight Board, which would approve new charter schools. He’s added $4 million to the budget to pay for the additional charter students. Walker would also loosen regulations on where students could attend charter schools and where authorizers could charter schools.
But do Milwaukee and the state at large need more charter schools? Would MPS get better results if all of its failing schools were turned into charters?
Darling and Kooyenga didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s request to talk about their charter school plan. But three experts on New Orleans’ experiment with charters told the Shepherd that a recovery district has created as many problems as it’s solved.
The Post-Katrina Recovery District
Darling and Kooyenga are basing their charter school turnaround model on post-Katrina New Orleans. Louisiana had created a state-run Recovery School District in 2003, before the hurricane, but it oversaw just a handful of schools. At the time, the Orleans Parish School District was struggling, just as high-poverty urban public school districts around the country struggle. The city only had a few charter schools and they performed about as well as their traditional counterparts. Parents could send their kids to a neighborhood public school or a signature public school outside of their neighborhood.
But when the hurricane hit on August 29, 2005, the state, then led by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, as well as the George W. Bush-led federal agencies, decided to expand charters dramatically. In November 2005, when many flooded-out New Orleans residents were scattered elsewhere, Blanco called a special session of the Legislature and in short order passed Act 35, which allowed the state to take over schools that performed below the state average and convert them to charters. But the carefully crafted legislation only applied to New Orleans. Blanco also did away with requirements that faculty, parents and students be consulted when converting a school to a charter.
The beefed-up New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) took over more than 100 former public-turned-charter schools while a handful of high-performing traditional schools remained in the public school district. Act 35 also summarily fired more than 7,000 public school employees and terminated their union contract when it expired. The veteran teachers were largely replaced by new Teach for America recruits from around the country.
The passage of Act 35 was swift, and it was sweeping. It was also heavily incentivized by the Bush administration and the Koch- and Bradley Foundation-funded Heritage Foundation, which saw post-Katrina New Orleans as a laboratory of sorts for taxpayer-funded free-market experiments, charter schools among them. Multimillions of federal moneys and philanthropic grants went to charters, only, bypassing the traditional public schools.
Test Scores Disputed
A decade later, results are mixed and provide warnings for anyone attempting to turn Milwaukee into a school recovery zone.
New Orleans’ charter proponents argue that student performance and graduation rates are up, thanks to the post-Katrina free-market reforms. Darling and Kooyenga’s turnaround district proposal draws from a 2012 guide for cities interested in pursuing New Orleans-style education reforms. The authors, including Neerav Kingsland, the founder of the charter incubator New Schools for New Orleans, claim that from 2005 through 2010 New Orleans decreased the city-state achievement gap by more than half, dropout rates plummeted, the African American achievement gap shrank and student performance rate of growth has outpaced the rest of the state.
But three education experts from New Orleans—Kristen Buras, associate professor at Georgia State University and author of Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space, parent advocate Karran Harper Royal and former teacher and principal Raynard Sanders—dispute the claims of any miracle happening thanks to New Orleans’ experiment with free-market education.
Buras said that any data about New Orleans’ student performance should be treated with caution, beginning with the notion that the pre-Katrina New Orleans public schools were failing and needed a state intervention.
Buras said that the pre-Katrina public schools’ academic struggles were due to “a long history of white neglect by policy makers and racism in Louisiana. That racialized state neglect of New Orleans’ public schools generated a lot of the challenges and struggles that black veteran teachers fought against for over a century. So when reformers say that New Orleans’ public schools were failing they don’t really get into the root cause of that failure.”
Act 35, which converted almost all of the city’s traditional public schools right after the hurricane hit, changed the definitions of passing and failing. Prior to Act 35, the standard was set at 60 points out of 200 and the vast majority of schools were making the grade. But the legislation raised the standard to 87.4 points. This higher standard immediately flunked 107 of 120 New Orleans schools.
“By shifting the definition of performance, it legitimized the RSD taking over the schools in Orleans Parish, which they then turned around and handed over to private charter school operators,” Buras said. “And all of this was done before African American community members could even come back and see if they still had a house still standing.”
The post-Katrina student achievement scores are just as dubious, Buras said.
After the New Orleans public schools were converted to charters, the state lowered the standard back down to 60 points, then changed the scale and standard again.
“The standard used to judge charter schools is different than the standard used to judge a traditional public school,” Buras said. “Any upward trajectory that you see is legislatively contrived. You can generate success by shifting the standard.”
Buras also warned that performance scores from the city’s high-performing traditional public schools, governed by a democratically elected school board, are often lumped in with the RSD-run charter schools’ test scores to inflate them.
Parent advocate Royal said her analysis of the 2014 student performance showed that only four of more than 100 charter schools in the recovery district would be above the higher state standard.
“Once people clear through the propaganda I think they will see it for the failure that it is,” Royal said.
Students and Teachers Displaced
The new educational landscape in New Orleans has been fraught with controversy, some of it landing in the courts.
The 7,500 teachers fired en masse sued. Two lower courts ruled in their favor but the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned those decisions and approved the mass firings. The teachers are now taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Buras said the mass firing of veteran unionized teachers—many of whom made up the black middle class—has had a devastating effect on the city but has been a boon for the national recruiting group Teach for America.
“[The public school teachers] had struggled for decades under inequitable conditions to teach kids and while their houses have been completely flattened by the flood waters, federal moneys—rather than paying those veteran teachers their benefits and salaries—were redirected to the RSD to recruit nationally and to pay out-of-state, inexperienced, transient recruits’ housing allowances,” Buras said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center also sued on behalf of students needing special education, arguing that students with disabilities weren’t being educated properly and were being disciplined improperly. After a four-year battle, it obtained a consent decree in December and an independent monitor will oversee its implementation.
Local control and input is gone, too. A neighborhood public school doesn’t exist. The democratically elected Orleans Parish School District only oversees a few schools. The boards of the charter operators are largely self-appointed. Parents and residents must contact their school operator or the state-run RSD if they have a complaint or concern. Instead of attending neighborhood schools, African American students are bused to schools that had been built during the recovery period in primarily white areas. Royal said she’s seen four different bus operators picking up kids at one street corner to take them to their various schools across the city.
“When we use the word disenfranchisement, we are using that word with all of its historical connotations,” Buras said. “The notion of local governance—the voice of the electorate, specifically the African American community—there is no more of that.”
Former educator Sanders told the Shepherd that New Orleans’s recovery district is the perfect model to study when considering radical education reforms.
“New Orleans for the past nine years has had no elected school board, they have been managed by private companies, they have had school choice where parents can walk with their feet, they got rid of their old teachers, they don’t have a teachers’ union contract and most importantly they have had an unprecedented amount of funding,” Sanders said. “On top of all of that they are still ranked at the bottom versus other school districts in Louisiana and they have the lowest ACT scores in the state.”
Kristen Buras, Karran Harper Royal and Raynard Sanders will speak at two Milwaukee Public Schools-sponsored events this week. On Thursday, March 26, they’ll hold workshops at the Milwaukee High School for the Arts, 2300 W. Highland Ave, at 4:30 p.m. On Friday, March 27, they’ll hold a panel discussion at Parklawn Assembly of God, 3725 Sherman Blvd., at 6 p.m. For more information, go to mpsmke.com/supportmps.