Madison Prep and the Attack on Public Education

Mission Of Burma – “Academy Fight Song” (click to listen or download).

[Note;  This post is adapted from an article I wrote over a week ago for the Progressive Dane Newsletter (as of this writing PD has not taken  a position on the Madison Prep proposal).  I've only changed minimally for posting here;  one thing I have added is some hyperlinks (but I did not link as thoroughly as I usually do), another is a small  "For Further Reading" set of links at the end,"  and of course the song.  This is intended to be  a broad overview and introduction to what I think are some of the most important issues concerning the decision on the Madison Preparatory Academy presented in the context of related national issues.  Issues raised in this post have been and will be treated in more depth  -- and with hyperlinks --  in other posts]

For decades free market advocates such as the Bradley Foundation, the Walton Foundation and the Koch brothers have a waged a multi-front campaign against the public sector and the idea of the common good.  Public education has been one of the key battlegrounds.  In the coming weeks the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will decide whether to approve a proposal for the Madison Prep Charter School.  This proposal and the chief advocate for it – Kaleem Caire of the Urban League of Greater Madison – have their roots in the Bradley/Walton/Koch movement, and like much of that movement they offer false promises of educational progress in order to obscure the damage being done to every child in our public schools.

A Public Hearing on the Madison Prep proposal has been scheduled for Monday October 3, at 6:00 PM in the Doyle Building Auditorium;  The Madison Prep proposal is on the agenda of the PD General Membership Meeting  (Wed , 9/28 , 6:00 p.m, Hawthorne Branch Library, guests welcome).

The campaign to undermine public education, nationally and in Madison, has been very sophisticated politically and simplistic educationally.  Caire and other “choice” advocates zero in on the failings of public schools, while dismissing the successes or often even the possibility of success within a public school context.  This attention to the failings of public schools, especially for poor and minority students, is welcome.  However instead supporting the difficult and uncertain work of finding ways to expand educational opportunities and improve attainment for those being left behind, the self-proclaimed “reformers” offer only unfounded market-based panaceas.

This not only ignores the essential educational work that is needed, it obscures the growing inequalities of wealth and power that are at the core of many of educational struggles.

Madison Prep is a classic case.  The proposals (there have been multiple versions) and the extensive media campaign have centered on a narrative based on selected statistics illustrating gaps in achievement between African American (and to a lesser extent Hispanic) males and other students.  No attempt is made to locate the sources of those gaps, no attention is given to student-related factors such as poverty (Madison Prep advocates prefer to talk about race, not poverty) or mobility (in 2009 173 of the 435 African American 10th graders were in their first year at the school they attended); or to school-based factors such as curriculum, pedagogy, grouping practices, class-size, resource allocations….Instead the one and only “solution” offered is the ill-conceived Madison Prep Charter School.

A big part of this campaign has been directed at unionized public school teachers who are blamed for all the ills of schools.  Charters like Madison Prep promise to address these ills by stripping teachers of their rights and job security, forcing them to work longer hours for less pay and fewer benefits, while expanding administrative supervision via a top heavy structure peopled by multiple well compensated  administrators, a “President” and a “Head of School” and a “Development Director.”  The transfer of wealth and power of the market based economy is mirrored in the structure of the school.

The Madison Prep educational plan itself is an incoherent and contradictory mélange of trendy and unproven elements.  Some of what is being proposed is promising (intensive tutoring, perhaps longer school days and years), some of it educationally empty (uniforms), and some of it likely damaging to creativity and authentic learning (the militaristic discipline of the “No Excuses” models).  None of the elements in-and-of themselves have been shown to make a significant impact on academic achievement and because of the contradictions there is a good chance that the whole will be less than the sum of the parts.

One model being held up by the Madison Prep advocates is the “No Excuses” disciplinary approach of schools such as Chicago’s Urban Prep and the KIPP chain.  These schools often have high attrition rates and/or test scores appreciably lower than schools serving similar students (despite spending more per student, requiring a longer school day and serving a less impoverished population in comparison to the Chicago Public Schools as a whole, on the most recent tests only 11% of Urban Prep’s 11th graders met state standards in mathematics, well below the – still unacceptable – 29% for CPS).  Serious abusive disciplinary practices have characterized some KIPP schools and when these have come to light, because of their Charter status local Boards of Education have been frustrated in their efforts to intervene (some would say the entire KIPP model is abusive and these are not anomalies, but simply “No Excuse” taken to its logical conclusion).

Aligned with the “No Excuses” model is a reactionary and discriminatory call for single-sex education and an implicit rejection of the theory and practice of special education services designed to address the needs of a significant portion of our students.  The initial exclusion of young women from Madison Prep has been addressed, but the issues concerning potential discrimination against gay and transgender students have not been part of the discussion thus far and the outdated models of masculinity and femininity reinforced by this version of single sex education have not been examined.  Like all Charter Schools, Madison Prep will be required to admit special education students, but the “No Excuses” model is antithetical to the best practices in this area.

Madison Prep also promises to offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program and employ the “Harkness Method”of Phillip Exeter Academy to cultivate creative thinking and collaborative learning.  As attractive as these are in theory, they hold little promise as a means of addressing the needs of those students featured in the Madison Prep media blitz and call for practices that are at the opposite end of the pedagogical spectrum from the KIPP model.

The presence of IB and the “Harkness Method” in the proposal also highlights an important disconnect between the problem identified — MMSD is failing minority students and the solution offered – a Charter School.  By law, Charter Schools cannot discriminate in admissions (on the basis of race, poverty, academic achievement, or anything else).  Madison Prep cannot target those who are failing/being failed.  IB and Harkness style teaching will likely be very attractive to the families of students who are thriving in MMSD, the top 10%, meaning that if this proposal goes through the majority of the applications may come from students who are about as far from those featured in the sales pitch as possible.

In contrast, the school district and district schools can and do target programs and services to students who are failing and being failed.  That the district needs to be doing more of this and a better job of it is beyond question, but the expense of the Madison Prep proposal will force cuts to all district programs and services, including these.

According to the latest figures available, the five-year cost of Madison Prep will be about $27,000,000 and the cost per student  to the district will be about $15,000 (MMSD’s marginal cost per student is a little below $11,000).  The district will experience some savings because students in Madison Prep will mean fewer students in district schools, but because of the distributed nature educational budgeting, these savings – mostly in the form of fewer teachers – will be minimal (about $500,000 annually) and also come at the cost of more limited course and schedule choices in district schools. Estimates are that the funding Madison Prep for the hundreds of students who will enroll will require cutting an additional $1.5 and $2 million annually from the programs and services that serve 24,000 district students, 12,000 of whom live in poverty.

This will of course make it harder, if not impossible for the public schools to meet the needs of the students in their charge by offering the opportunities to learn they deserve, which will further undermine support for public schools and make market-based solutions and privatization appear superficially more attractive.  This vicious cycle is exactly what the Bradleys, the Waltons and the Kochs want.  Show up at the hearing or write the Board of Education (board@madison.k12.wi.us ;) and let them know that you don’t want this happening in Madison

Thomas J. Mertz

Chair, Progressive Dane Education Task Force

For Further Reading:

Kevin G. Welner, “Free Market Think Tanks and the Marketing of Education Policy.”

Diane Ravitch, “The Myth of Charter School.”

David Sirota,  “The bait and switch of school ‘reform.”

Don Whittinghill, “ Following the Charter Dollars.”

2 Comments

Filed under Accountability, Best Practices, Budget, education, Equity, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, National News, School Finance, Take Action, We Are Not Alone

2 responses to “Madison Prep and the Attack on Public Education

  1. Richard S. Russell

    It may be argued that we can’t know how well (or poorly) such a charter school will do until we try it. In fact, that was EXACTLY the argument used under the administration of Gov. Tommy Thompson to institute the voucher “experiment” in Milwaukee Public Schools a couple of decades ago. “Don’t pre-judge”, the school-choice advocates said; “try it and see how much better we can do.”
     
    So the Legislature passed the program, but with a cap on enrollment and a requirement for an evaluation component. The evaluation was to be performed over a 5-year time span by the widely respected UWM education professor, Dr. Alex Molnar, and his team of educational experts and statisticians. It was to match each school-choice kid with a comparably situated counterpart in the public schools, then compare how they did year to year.
     
    The 5 years were up, the Molnar team turned in their findings, and the results were: no significant difference between the 2 sets of students. The experiment had failed to demonstrate the basis for the choice program: that it would improve student performance.
     
    The Thompson administration’s reaction? It shrugged, expanded the program, and eliminated the evaluation component. After all, can’t let ugly facts stand in the way of a beautiful policy pander.
     
    Regrettably, among the enablers of the MPS school-choice program were a couple of high-profile leaders in Milwaukee’s black community, top educator Dr. Howard Fuller and state Rep. Polly Williams. Their desperation to find something — ANYTHING — to help the admittedly badly served students of the Milwaukee Public Schools led them to clutch at this superficially attractive but ultimately counterproductive straw.
     
    The end result has been a series of entrepreneurs setting up choice schools, then running off with the state aid, leaving the kids, parents, and taxpayers high and dry; no accountability; an exemption from state testing requirements; cost cutting at the expense of handicapped students; continued reliance on the public schools to provide “supplemental” classes that require lab work; and massive subsidies for religious indoctrination. (Over 90% of the choice schools are affiliated with some church or other.)
     
    So don’t be misled by claims that Madison Prep is just an experiment that can be abandoned once it fails to provide the claimed benefits. It’s the camel’s nose in the tent, and once in place it’ll take dynamite to get rid of it, no matter how badly it underperforms.

  2. Ted Lewis

    The Madison Prep Academy game plan is simple, and has worked in other cities: 1) Characterize the school system as “failing” (ignore positive efforts in district and other factors, e.g., poverty); 2) Use Civil Rights language to highlight urgency of addressing education racial achievement gaps; 3) Propose a non-district charter school as the only viable solution; and 4) Slander all those who oppose the charter school, and/or who support other approaches, as “defenders of the status quo.”

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