Category Archives: Equity

“It’s time to spread the truth about impact of budget on Wisconsin’s public schools”

Click the graphic for more information on WAES.

The Jam – “Time for Truth” (click to listen or download)

I haven’t posted any Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools  advocacy material this way lately, so here goes.  Short version:  The “tools” aren’t working, our students aren’t getting the opportunities to learn they need and deserve, and the only way this will change is if we don’t give up, we keep agitating.

Dear education advocate:

We need your help now.  We’ve identified you as not only people who care about kids, schools and their communities, but also who have the knowledge and skills to work on their behalf. We need your help in reaching out to the rest of the state—the media, community organizations and your neighbors—in pointing out how destructive recent changes have been to our children’s opportunities to learn.

This afternoon, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators released data that show, for the first time, the devastating impact of the most recently passed state budget.
While we all knew intuitively that a $1.6 billion cut in education would have an impact, the data is even worse than we could have expected and is a clear signal that our state is moving in the wrong direction as it relates to our schools.

The report is attached along with the release that was distributed from WAES. Here are the messages that we want to convey:

  • The state budget cut education by historic proportions. The state budget cut aid and revenue limit authority to Wisconsin schools by $1.6 billion in the last budget.  This is the largest cut to Wisconsin education ever and is one of the biggest cuts made by any state in the history of the country .
  • These cuts are having a devastating impact on our schools.  The data is in, and it shows that the cuts to Wisconsin schools, as a result of the state budget, are devastating and much worse than we could have expected.
  • Class sizes have skyrocketed. What happens when you cut teaching positions? Obviously, class sizes get larger. In schools large and small across the state, the average size of classes, especially at the elementary school level, have increased dramatically.
  • Course offerings have decreased.  The new data show that the numbers of programs and services for students in our public schools have declined significantly.  What’s worse, some classes, including programs for gifted students and the kinds of classes that are needed for admittance into highly selective colleges and universities, are gone. For those students who want to go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison or another highly selective school, the challenge has become even greater.
  • Schools face even greater financial challenges next year.While the news is terrible for schools this year, the data show that half of Wisconsin schools are using one-time federal dollars to balance this year’s budget shortfall, money that will not be available next year.  Moreover, two out of three districts say that next year’s cuts will be even bigger than this year’s.
  • >We’re heading in the wrong direction. The data show that we are clearly moving in the wrong direction when it comes to our schools.  At a time when the knowledge and skills of our graduates are more important than ever before—not only for them but for our entire state—why are we making such devastating cuts to our schools?

Here is what you can do now: While we are working to connect with reporters who are covering the story from a state-level perspective, we need your help in reaching reporters, bloggers, and media outlets in your area.  Here are some specific things you can do right now —

  • >Find out what’s happening at home: The data from DPI tells the story at the state level, and it is devastating to children. If you can work with your local school district to determine the local impact, it will be even more powerful.
  • Connect with local reporter: We need to make sure this report is covered in your local newspaper.  Toward that end, if you know a reporter at your local paper who would write about this issue, please contact them and urge them to do so.
  • Write a letter to the editor: We also encourage you to write a letter-to-the-editor of your local newspaper for publishing.  If you need them, e-mail addresses of many Wisconsin newspapers are attached to this message.
  • Contact local talk radio hosts and ask to go on their shows: We need to get our voices heard on this issue. Contact the hosts of local radio shows and ask them if you can go on their show to talk about the report.
  • Connect with others who will amplify our voices: Think about others in your area who are friendly to our cause and can help carry these messages.  Do you know someone who writes a popular local blog? Are you close with your local PTA/PTO president? Use your imagination and your connections to tell others about this report, and ask them to spread our messages.

Whatever you do, please do something and make sure to let us know your plans. Thanks.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Cap Times, Folkbum, and a whole lot of other places have more.

To help recall Scott Walker, check in with United Wisconsin.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, Contracts, education, Equity, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, School Finance, Scott Walker, Take Action

People Have the Power: SB 22 Dead (For Now)

Patti Smith – “People Have the Power” (click to listen or download) 

Susan Troller is reporting in the Cap Times that SB 22, the bill creating a partisan, political state charter school authorizing board to override the wishes of local school boards (and more) is dead, for now.  This is a huge victory for  public education in the state,  local control, and the Wisconsin people’s mobilization.

The bill came before the Senate Education Committee on March 23, in the wake of the mass protests.  Hundreds of newly empowered individuals and groups showed up to counter the well laid plans of the FitzWalker gang, School Choice Wisconsin, Wisconsin Charter School Association, American Federation for Children and the rest of the deformers (including Madison Prep’s Kaleem Caire).  The hearing took 10 hours (so long that I had to leave before I could read my testimony).  It was spontaneous, invigorating and beautiful (you can watch it here, via WisconsinEye or read Rebecca Kemble’s report).

It was one of the first occasions where the energy of the protests was translated into this sort of action.   Soon after, much of the energy went toward the Senatorial recall efforts.  This was and is a controversial choice.  Many, myself included, had and have mixed feelings about the wisdom of diverting small d democratic potential into big D Democratic politics.

The wisdom of that choice is still open to debate (and is being debated within the Occupy Movement), but the defeat of SB 22 strengthens the case that it was  a good choice (it does not seal the case by any means).

As Troller explains the post-recall one seat Republican edge made GOP Senator Dale Schultz’s reluctance to support and GOP Senator Mike Ellis’s non-committal enough to kill the bill, for now.

The “for now” means that just that; this could come back from the dead.  One friend suggests that we should all send Schultz and Ellis notes of thanks and support to make sure they don’t defect (and you can do that by clicking their names above) .  My big worry is making sure that the Democrats don’t defect, particularly Senator Lena Taylor.

There are many things I like about Lena Taylor, but she is a favorite of the hedge-fund managers for education deform operating under the name Democrats for Education Reform (DFER, read more at DFER Watch) , having received their generous donations in the past and been named their “Reformer of the Month” for February 2011DFER Wisconsin was and is a strong proponent of SB 22.

In politics money talks and these people have money (as the recent Imagine Schools scandals remind us, some of that money was appropriated from schools and children via charter school scams).   DFER and aligned groups dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the recent Denver School Board races; with $3.6 million in contributions “Stand for Children” was able to push their deforms through the Illinois Legislature; the list goes on.

So contacting Lena Taylor would be a good idea too.  You can grab talking points from Public School for the Public Good, AMPS comrade Todd Price; I love My Public School, Martin Scanlan of Marquette, and my testimony linked above.  We may not have millions to give, but we people do have the power, when they use it.

Adding to the “what next” list, the Scott Walker recall kicks in very soon and United Wisconsin is the go to place to help out with that.  Just remember that progress may start with getting better people in office, but it isn’t going to get very far if we don’t remain mobilized, remain powerful.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Accountability, Best Practices, education, Elections, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, National News, Scott Walker, Take Action, Uncategorized

Madison Prep, More Questions than Answers

James Brown – “I Don’t Know” (click to listen or download

With only  24 days remaining till the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will vote on the Madison Preparatory Academy  charter and only 9 days until the MMSD administration is required to issue an analysis of their proposal (and that is assuming the analysis is issued on a Sunday, otherwise we are talking only one week), there are still many, many unanswered questions concerning the school.  Too many unanswered questions.

Where to start?

All officially submitted information (and more) can be found on the district web site (scroll down for the latest iterations, and thanks to the district public info team for doing this).

The issues around instrumentality/non instrumentality and the status of staff in relation to existing union contracts have rightfully been given much attention.  It is my understanding that there has been some progress, but things seem to be  somewhat stalled on those matters.

From my perspective, the biggest unanswered questions concern which policies and statutes Madison Prep is seeking waivers from. Inclusion of this information is a requirement for the submission of “detailed proposal” under the district’s policy.  I am at a loss to understand how things have come this far without this requirement being fulfilled.

It is also a common sense requirement since the very definition of a charter school is a school that is exempt from some policies.   It really is essential to know what those policies are.

The last official statements from the Urban League was in the planning grant submission and asked for a blanket waiver of all MMSD policies and select exemptions from state law.  They read (click to enlarge):


Well, we all know that the teacher contract statutes have changed greatly since the February date of the planning grant application and now or soon all school staff will labor under the conditions Madison Prep was seeking for their staff.    I do have some concerns and issues about graduation and promotion standards that are not clearly or directly answered in the most recent “Business Plan” or the subsequent “Education Plan” (which tellingly was an addendum to the “Business Plan”).

The MMSD policies are of greater import.  These cover everything from nepotism, to discrimination and much more.  In this case student discipline, suspensions and expulsions are one area of particular concern.  I want to know what they want waived, why and what they intend to do instead.

I’ve written about  some other unanswered questions here (in fairness, the more recent submissions partially answer these) and at the same link you can find more on what the Board is required to consider and the process.  I think a reminder on the latter is important.

According to their policies, among the things they will be considerings are:

…an analysis of how a decision to establish or not establish the proposed charter school will impact families to be served and the overall programs and operation of the District.


…at a minimum, consider the information included in the detailed proposal, the information provided by the Superintendent, whether or not the requirements of Board Policy have been met, the level of employee and parental support for the establishment of the charter school, and the fiscal impact of the establishment of the charter school on the District.

Board Members also have many questions which have not been answered.  You can and should review the here on them district web site.  Many, many questions, few answers.  I have been told by Board Members that additional questions have been submitted, but not posted (nor it goes without saying, answered).  Look for updates.

Other community members have questions too.  The topics I’m hearing most about include the adequacy of Madison Prep’s planning for special education students, the wisdom and legality of gender segregation, the potential for discrimination  against LGBTQ students, the budgetary and other impacts on the district and the students in the district,  the selection of students and who will be served, the IB program in general and in relation to struggling students, the attrition analysis…and much more (again, in fairness, we have more information o some of these now than we did two weeks ago).  People I know have asked both MMSD and the Urban League about many of these and have not received satisfactory answers.

The clock is ticking…the district and the Board and the community deserve adequate information in a timely manner;  the Board needs it in order to make a decision.

I believe that the lack of timely information on crucial matters in-and-of-itself recommends against granting the charter.  Under the constitution and the laws of the state the elected Board is charged with the educational well being of MMSD’s 25,000 students and the with fiscal responsibility for the funds provided by taxpayers and others.  In seeking a charter, the Urban League is asking the Board to transfer these for up to 840 students.  This should not be done lightly and  it is incumbent upon the Urban League to demonstrate that they are prepared for these responsibilities.  That so many things remain unanswered at this point does not inspire confidence.

Thomas J.  Mertz

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Filed under Best Practices, Budget, education, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Uncategorized

What Madison Prep Doesn’t Want You to See

Bill Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine” (click to listen or download)

Earlier this week The Urban League of Greater Madison (ULGM) provided the Madison Metropolitan School District  with new, draft documents, a “Business Plan” and another Budget.  I learned of these documents this morning and was told at that time they would be posted on the district web site by Noon.  When at the request of ULGM that didn’t happen,  I called to ask for a copy.  After some time elapsed and calls from me and others, I was told copies could be obtained only by going to the Doyle Building in person.  I’m remedying that by posting them here (click the link above).

I’ve only had a chance to skim one of them, but there doesn’t appear to be too much new (although some of this has been on the Madison Preparatory Academy website and not in an official document before).  I’ll be digging in later.  For now just three observations.

  1. A major concern with charter schools is turning over children and money to a private group that lacks transparency and openness.  I realize these are draft documents, but the fact that ULGM thought they were ready to give the district, but wanted to make it hard for the public to review them does not demonstrate a commitment to openness or transparency.  It demonstrates that there is reason to be concerned.
  2. As I’ve said before, what we have seen thus far is a marketing plan, not a plan to open a school.  This gets a very little bit closer to a plan to open a school, but it is clear that more time and energy has been spent selling than planning.
  3. The clock is still ticking and the criteria for a “detailed proposal” have still not been met.  November 28 is the projected vote, which means the Administrative Analysis needs be be done by November 13.  They need all the information possible before completing that analysis and the sooner the better.

More later.

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under "education finance", Accountability, Best Practices, Budget, education, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, Local News

Some Truth About Urban Prep and Why It Matters

The Undisputed Truth – ” Smiling Faces” (click to listen or download)


To bolster their case and push their agendas, advocates for market-based education reform and   market-based policies in general tout “miracle schools” that have supposedly produced amazing results .  Urban Prep in Chicago is often exhibit A.

As Diane Ravitch wrote of Urban Prep and other ed deform favorites ” the only miracle at these schools was a triumph of public relations.”

Locally, backers of the Madison Preparatory Academy have incorporated much of the Urban Prep model in their plan and have repeatedly cited the “success” of that  school as evidence of the soundness of their proposal.   Just this weekend Derrell Connor was quoted as saying in relation to Madison Prep “We are using Urban Prep (in Chicago) as an example, which for the last four years has a 100 percent graduation rate and all those kids have gone on to college.”  As I pointed out in a back-and-forth in the comments on that interview, the actual Urban Prep graduation rate is far below 100% (62.6% is the correct figure, my mistakes in the comments, also there have only been two graduating classes, not four) .

While this is better than the figures for African American Males in Chicago and Madison, I tend to discount graduation rates as a metric for autonomous and semi-autonomous schools where what constitutes passing isn’t closely monitored and all involved have a vested interest in higher numbers.  Similar interests are present with the  college admissions figures that are at the center of Urban Prep’s marketing campaign.   Often a counterfactual is employed: “better at Urban Prep or college than in prison,” but there is no way to establish that without Urban Prep these particular students would be headed toward prison and given the family/self selection, many reasons to believe that they would not.  All of this distracts from a a consideration of the desirability of a model that sends under-prepared students to college where at best they receive remediation paid for by scarce family or scholarship funds or student loans.  Also lost is the fact that the vast majority of post-secondary institutions have minimal admissions requirements and that almost all motivated high school graduates (and even GED takers) can gain admission.

That back-and-forth directly prompted this post (it was one of many that have been simmering and was moved to the front burner).  As the title indicates, I want to dig  beyond the hype and look at what has and has not been achieved at Urban Prep.  I also want to explore a bit how the hype has distorted and damaged discussions and deliberations about education and education policy.

An Aside

This most definitely is not a rejoinder to Mr. Connor, but since I did mention him, I will say up front that in both the interview and the comments, I sensed from his words —  more than I have from many others  —  a willingness to acknowledge the complexity of the issues and the limitations of any one educational program.   This is important, because  —  as addressed below  —  I see much of the negative impact of the “miracle school” myth as being due to denial of complexity and limitations.

Some Truth About Urban Prep (Numbers and Charts)

First the caveats.  I don’t now and never will believe that test score data gives anything like a true or full picture of a school (or district or state).  Standardized tests are at best a limited snapshot, designed to sort students, not measure what they know; and so much else of what goes on in schools  —  both good and bad  — and contributes to or detracts from  personal development is not and cannot be quantified with any degree of confidence.   So “some truth,” from some test score data, not the whole truth.  One more caveat is that all numbers are from the Englewood Campus (the others are too new to have posted data).

Gary Rubenstein and others have done the basic work of delineating the abysmal test scores at Urban Prep.   You can view the interactive school Report Card here.  There really is no way to spin 17% of the students meeting state standards as a “success,” (nor  is there any way to look at the 29% meeting standards in the Chicago Public Schools and not demand change of one sort or another).  The idea that Urban Prep is a success to be emulated is absurd.  Further examination of the record only reinforces this conclusion.

What I  want to do here is look a deeper at the differences in achievement (gaps) between “easier to educate” and “harder to educate students  at Urban Prep, specifically around poverty.  One more caveat: looking at gaps based on broad categories like poverty, special education and race also distorts the realities of schools and students, all poverty is not the same (for a fine macro take on this see this from Bruce Baker), special education students have a wide variety of abilities and the of salience race is not simple or constant.

Still, much of the case being made in favor of Urban Prep and Madison Prep is based on standardized test achievement gaps, so looking at the gaps that exist at Urban Prep is reasonable.

Poverty  matters and the gaps based on poverty —  as measured by Free or Reduced Lunch status  — at the almost entirely African American Urban Prep are eye-opening and further  puncture the myth that this school has the answers.

The first chart shows composite percentage meeting (none exceeded) state standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), all PSAE data from here.

As bad as the scores are for the school as a whole, they are much, much worse for the students in poverty. In the most recent year the gap is 19.7% and only 11.7% of students in poverty meet the standards.

Similar,gaps on the ACT (raw data here).

This shows the percentage of students who achieved a composite score of 20 or greater, a measure of “college readiness,” but not the official ACT version (both measures are problematic for a variety of reasons).  The poverty gap was 18.2 in 2011, with only 5.3% of students in poverty scoring a composite of 20 or greater.

One more from the ACT, this one shows composite means.

The point differences aren’t that great, but the gap is there and neither the 17.7 (for non FRL) nor the 15.5 (for FRL) inspires confidence.   When you learn that Urban Prep has partnered with a for profit ACT Prep company, these scores look even worse.

Whatever might be working at Urban Prep (by these measures), is working much better for non Free/Reduced Lunch students than it is for students in poverty.   It should also be noted that on most of these measures and for most years, with one exception, the gaps have grown.  Poverty matters.

(Some of) Why This Matters

The Big, Big Picture: Structural Inequality

The Big, Big Picture is about structural change in our society and how the myths of “miracle schools” and equality of opportunity via education work against those changes.  The”schools and schools alone can overcome inequality, ” teacher and teacher union bashing corporate reform crowd associated with the Education Equality  Projectsignatories include  Kaleem Caire, Newt Gingrich,  Michelle Rhee,  Whitney Tilson (of DFER),  Dr. Beverly L. Hall (the disgraced former Atlanta Superintendent), Eric Hanushek (of the Hoover Institute)…you get the idea  — make extensive use of the supposed miracle schools to advance their agendas.  They don’t want the myths exposed, they don’t want structural inequality examined.

I’ve spent a good deal of my life studying and working for equality of educational opportunity and strongly believe that public education is the best tool we have for combating inequality, but “social”  equality (“social” as in TH Marshall’s conception of “Social Citizenship” see Linda Gordon and Nancy Fraser for more) and even real equality of educational opportunity requires something much Broader and Bolder than school reform can bring (click the link, I’m a signatory there).

Yet it is incontrovertible  that no school or teacher can fully erase the educational advantages that the children of the educated and the wealthy have over children without books in their homes or even homes at all.  Even at a school like Urban prep, where likely no students are wealthy but many are poor, the differences are pronounced.

In more subtle ways  the myths of meritocracy and educational opportunity have worked against the fuller enactment of social provisions found in most Western nations and continue to obscure and distract from confronting the structures that reproduce inequality.

I have another post  germinating that will cover some of this, so I’m going to keep working to expand Opportunities to Learn  and set this analysis aside for now (related thoughts from Diane Ravitch here).

The Big Picture: Educational Policy

In terms of educational decision-making, a big problem with these myths is that they are false and false premises poison the process.

Because the myths are as attractive as they are false, getting past this is difficult.  People want to believe in miracles.  Add to that they are being spread via a very, very  well-funded marketing and lobbying campaigns and the problem is compounded.   A credulous media doesn’t help either; miracles make great stories ( see ” “Misinformed charter punditry doesn’t help anyone (especially charters!)” by Bruce Baker for a somewhat different take on this).

The reality of expanding opportunities and extending attainment is not as simple or as marketable.  Lists of “proven” policies  — like adequate funding, smaller classes, differentiated resource allocations (poverty aids); differentiated instruction; Quality  early childhood education; experienced; well prepared and compensated staff (not just teachers, but social workers, EAs. librarians, psychologists, counselors,  all in adequate numbers to assure that students get the attention they need);  high expectations and challenging academic work  for all students, quality and culturally relevant instructional materials, school and classroom diversity,  professional learning communities where educators have a respected voice in policy and practices, flexible pedagogy, well designed and frequent interventions for those falling behind, parental and community involvement  —  don’t have the same appeal.

When you add to these an acknowledged  need to attempt to address factors beyond the control of the schools, like mobility, developmental environment, peer cultures, health and medical issues (including but not limited to those like lead poisoning and fetal alcohol syndrome that directly effect learning and disproportionately impact minorities and those in poverty), food insecurity, housing insecurity,…’ve lost most of your audience.

If anyone is still listening or reading, you will almost certainly lose them if  you honestly end by saying  “these are some of the things we should be doing and they will help many,  but even with these we won’t achieve equality and maybe not even quality education for all.”   Complex, multifaceted, expensive and uncertain is a hard sell.

Closer to Home

As long as  the myths and narratives of advocates like those pushing Madison Prep remain largely unexamined, the false but attractive stories of simplistic miracles will have an advantage.  Even the  “if not this, what’s the alternative” response to questions and evidence leaves the public relations deck  stacked in their favor.  They have an easily marketed “tight package” but reality isn’t so tight and neither are  good education policy and practice.

Just for the record,  my answer to “if not this what” would begin with the above lists, include a call to implement the recommendations of the Equity Task Force and extend to seeking better understandings of how multiple factors such as mobility, race, poverty, disabilities, language…interact among students in MMSD, and how to and address these (one of my big complaints with the Madison Prep sales pitch is the simplistic framing of achievement as an exclusively  racial issue,  and the even more simplistic conflation of the experiences of African Americans and Latinos) .  I’d also recommend “Why Does the Gap Persist?” by Paul E. Barton as a good starting point on the state of research-based knowledge (along with the Better Bolder materials linked above and …..and….).  Not very tight or marketable, but the kind of things I think we should be talking about instead spreading or busting the myths of Urban Prep and the like.

Many people have  said that it is good that Madison Prep has forced our community to have a conversation about the education of students who are failing/being failed.  I wish we were having that conversation  but we aren’t.  There has been more heat than light and more myth than fact.

Much about the way Madison Prep has been presented has worked against the kind of deliberation I think our students and community would benefit from.  Perhaps the most basic part of this is  the fact that months into the marketing campaign and weeks before the vote on the proposal, the educational program  for Madison Prep is  still very much an outline (the basic requirements under for a “detailed” proposal” under MMSD policy have yet to be satisfied)  and it certainly has not been given much scrutiny.

The educational program should be central to the conversation.  Many communities spend months or years considering in great detail the pros and cons of single aspects of the Madison Prep plan, such as extended time, International Baccalaureate (perhaps relevant to this is the fact that despite claiming an Advanced Placement program Urban Prep students have not taken a single AP exam),  single-sex education (another Urban prep practice), “no excuses” policies (Urban Prep again), extended school day (yep, Urban Prep and like so much of this not supported by research)….With the clock ticking, we’ve spent almost no time on any of these, singly or in combination (as I’ve said repeatedly, the combination matters because the whole could be less –or more — than the sum of the parts).

The clock is ticking, but it isn’t too late.  I have faith that the Board of Education will at least attempt to deliberate based on facts and not myths, as well as some hope that a significant portion of the community, including some supporters of Madison Prep, will welcome and engage in this process.  Some hope.

Thomas J. Mertz


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

Madison Prep – 1,2,3 Yellow Light (updated)

The Talking Heads, “1,2,3 Red Light” (live, 1977 — click to listen or download).

[Update — I forgot a huge issue:  Waivers ULGM had previously asked for a blanket waiver of all MMSD policies and some state laws.    There has been no further information on this.]

Big news over the weekend in the Madison Preparatory Academy saga.  There has been significant and positive movement on four issues by the Urban League of Greater Madison (ULGM).  First, they have changed their request from non-instrumentality to instrumentality, increasing control by and accountability to the district.  Second, they have agreed to be staffed by teachers and other educators  represented by Madison Teachers Incorporated (MTI) and follow the existing contract between MTI and the Madison Metropolitan School District (the memo on these two items and more  is here).  ULGM has also morphed their vision from a district-wide charter to a geographic/attendance area charter.  Last, their current budget projections no longer require outrageous transfers of funds from other district schools.   Many issues and questions remain but these move the proposal from an obvious red light to the “proceed with caution” yellow.  It is far from being a green light.

Before identifying some of the remaining questions and issues, I think it is important to point out that this movement on the part on the Urban League came because people raised issues and asked questions.   Throughout the controversies there has been a tendency to present Madison Prep as initially proposed as “THE PLAN” and dismiss any questioning of that proposal as evidence that the questioners don’t care about the academic achievement of minorities and children of poverty.  This has been absurd and offensive.  Remember this started at $28,000 per/pupil.  Well, ULGM has moved this far because people didn’t treat their proposal as if it had been brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses;  if the proposal is eventually approved,  MMSD and likely Madison Prep will be better because these changes have been made.  As this process enters the next phases, I hope everyone keeps that in mind.

There is a Public Hearing on “The Proposal” tonight, October 3,2011 @ 6:00 PM at he Doyle Building (show early, there will be a crowd).  “The Proposal” is in quotation marks because there is much information that is required by Board Policy in a detailed proposal that is either missing or incomplete.  What we have officially — many things have been discussed in the press or on the Madison Prep site in more (but still not satisfactory) detail than appears in the official record —   is all (or nearly all) posted on this page from the district.

In the next 6-8 weeks the Board will vote on the proposal.  According to their policies, among the things they will be considerings are:

…an analysis of how a decision to establish or not establish the proposed charter school will impact families to be served and the overall programs and operation of the District.


…at a minimum, consider the information included in the detailed proposal, the information provided by the Superintendent, whether or not the requirements of Board Policy have been met, the level of employee and parental support for the establishment of the charter school, and the fiscal impact of the establishment of the charter school on the District.

What follows is a very initial and very lightly annotated list of what I see as things that should be part of this process.  Because new budget information was only released Friday evening and much other information is lacking, I want to emphasize that this is initial.  They are grouped loosely by topic and in no particular order (I will say I think the last is most important) ; some are things I think are of real concern, others are things that I just think need answers.

Budget Related:

There is much analysis yet to be done on the educational soundness of the choices made in the budget and more, but for now four issues jump out at me.

  1. Fund-raising projections at or above $500,000 per year.  This is a huge figure.
  2. Cost to families of about $770 per student, per year (uniforms, activity fee and field trip fee).  I misread the budget here and it looks like that included lunch and breakfast.  I believe the correct figure is about $270.
  3. No accounting for attrition:  Both ‘No Excuses” and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs have high attrition rates and all schools have some attrition.
  4. In years 6 or 7  IB exam fees kick in .  These could total in the tens of thousands annually.  We only have years 1-5 in the budget.

MTI Contract:

  1. Supervision of MTI members by non-MMSD employees may violate the existing contract. [Update:  And state statutes, which read: ” If the school board determines that the charter school is an instrumentality of the school district, the school board shall employ all personnel for the charter school.”]
  2. “Performance” based bonuses may violate the existing contract.
  3. What happens when the current contract expires.  If Act 10 is still in place, the protections currently available cannot be extended.  Despite the recent movement, the Madison Prep team  has a record being anti-union.

Location and Attendance Area:

The latest information as reported in the Cap Times (not anything official) is:

Caire says the school is looking at facilities to rent on the near west side, with most students likely to come from the current Toki, Cherokee, Jefferson and Wright middle school attendance areas.

First Wright does not have an attendance area of its own but encompasses the whole West area.  I understand this as saying the school will draw from West and Memorial areas, but this needs clarification.    Once clarified, the likely impact on all schools involved must be considered, as well as how this will shape the demographics of all the schools involved, including Madison Prep (remember, charter schools cannot discriminate in admissions).

Single Sex Education:

ULGM has said they intend to  satisfy the legal concerns of DPI at the time they finalize their contact with MMSD (if it gets this far).  This may be OK for DPI and planning grant funding, but seems to be mighty late in the game for MMSD.  I really think that this needs to be cleared up before the Board votes.

There is also the unexamined issue of how this fits with MMSD’s commitment to non-discrimination in relation to transgender students (something that is written into their Charter School Policy).  For those who don’t think this is important, I suggest you read the public testimony from the 2004 meeting that prompted MMSD to become a leader on this issue.

Who Will Attend:

This is related to the Location and Attendance Area matters, but extends beyond.   Given the laws and policies requiring open charter school admissions, I still don’t understand how or why this can work to target those students who are failing/being failed.

The Educational Program:

This is and should always be the crux of the matter.  If the program being proposed can reasonably be said to have a highly likelihood of significantly improving the educational attainment of a significant percentage of those who attend, then (almost) everything else becomes secondary (it doesn’t go away, but it recedes and note that all of the “high likelihoods” and “significantlys” are  – to a great degree  —  subjective).

I wrote before:

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.

There has been nothing from Madison Prep since I wrote that to change my impression.    I’ll be researching and writing more on this in the coming weeks and hope that more information from Madison Prep on their educational plans is forthcoming.

I want to point out that the incoherence and contradictions of what we have seen so far block the supposed path to replicating any possible successes in district schools   If this works, it won’t be at all clear what aspects made it work.

Lately I’ve been digging into IB materials and looking for places where it has been tried with high minority and/or high poverty student populations.  What I’ve found thus far is some real, but pretty limited success, high attrition and that even the “non-selective” programs (most IB programs have a very selective  application process) seem to require students to  be at least at grade level when they begin.  This doesn’t sound like the students featured in the Madison Prep media campaign.

Since I’m on the topic of IB, one other question has occurred to me concerning how Madison Prep intends to implement the program.  Some schools do a “certificate” allowing students to pick and choose which classes they do IB and which they don’t; others do only the “all IB” diploma program; still others have some students on one track and some on the other.  This matters in terms of both vision and budget.  If not all students are supposed to be “all IB,” that will require more non-IB course offerings; if all are “all IB” the exam fees per student will go up (as will attrition).

I’m going to leave this for now, with a promise to expand on those areas that I think are most important and a reminder that thorough vetting is always better than faith-based policy.  Sifting and winnowing, a proud Madison tradition.

Thomas J. Mertz


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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 ( ;) 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.”


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