The Charter Choice in Madison and the Nation


On Monday, March 9, 2008 The MMSD Board of Education will consider an application from the Nuestro Mundo community to begin the process of chartering a dual language immersion secondary school.

Although the application is very impressive and Nuestro Mundo appears to be a good and well run school, I urge the Board to turn away this effort to expand charters in Madison.  MMSD is initiating an elementary  non charter dual language immersion program and there is talk of a non charter dual language middle school also.  I believe that this is the the better path.

In an editorial today the Wisconsin State Journal puts forth self contradicting nonsense in favor of the charter proposal.  In a letter to that paper last week, Nuestro Mundo parent Judith Kujoth employed questionable and unsupported assertions of causality to advocate for the middle school proposal.  I’m just going to hit the low lights.

The editorial begins:

Madison needs to get past its outdated phobia of charter schools.

Charter schools are not a threat to public schools here or anywhere else in Wisconsin (emphasis added).

Later in the editorial they note the President Obama has pledged to double the Federal money for charters and note that the group hopes to get $1.1 million in Federal planning grants.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Obama’s funding of charters, like that of George W. Bush, will divert money from traditional public schools.  That $1.1 million that they hope to get is $1.1 million that isn’t and won’t be available for our underfunded district schools.  Yes, charters are a threat.  An insidious threat, because regardless of the merits of a particular proposal or the drawbacks of charters as a policy choice, cash strapped state and local decision makers are easily seduced by the promise of this money.

The editorial continues:

They are an exciting addition and asset to public schools — a potential source of innovation, higher student achievement and millions in federal grants.

And when charter schools do succeed at something new, their formula for success can be replicated at traditional schools to help all students (emphases added).

This is exactly what has happened in Madison.  Nuestro Mundo pioneered dual language immersion, the district saw good things happening and they are now in the process of “replicating.”

Apparently the State Journal doesn’t really believe this because later they opine:

The School Board should reward their success by opening the door to a charter middle school. Instead, too many board members seem bent on keeping any dual-language middle school within the framework of a traditional school.

So it isn’t about what is best for the district and the students at all, it is about “rewarding” certain people.  This goes to the heart of one big problem with charters:  They divide; they Balkanize.

What is good for the district as a whole and most children can easily get lost when well organized charter groups advocate tirelessnessly for their “rewards.”  This is true at the state and national levels also.  This is another way that charters threaten public education.

Even the most optimistic charter advocates must recognize that there is no realistic scenario where most children will not be in traditional public schools.  The Board’s job is to do what is best for all children; in practice they must make the utilitarian calculations about what is best for most children and that means doing everything they can to strengthen the district schools most children will attend.  This may include limited charters for purposes of innovation and to address persistent problems, but it certainly does not include “rewarding” anyone at the expense of the district as a whole.

Kujoth covered  much of the same shakey ground as the State Journal, so I’m only going to touch on one paragraph in her letter that caught my attention.

Creating a charter school will have many benefits. The law affords charters greater flexibility to create curricula and measure progress. Students in these schools often have higher rates of achievement because educators have flexibility to design teaching methods that appeal to the needs of each student and to change modalities when they aren’t working without being constrained by traditional district practices (emphasis added).

Note the “often” before “higher rates of achievement. ”  In fact there is no consistent evidence that students in charters have any higher achievement, the best evidence is that achievement is about the same or slightly lower than in traditional schools.

I’m skeptical of standardized tests as a measure of achievement, but it worth noting that Nuestro Mundo students have performed below the levels of students in other MMSD and Wisconsin schools and that this difference is more pronounced for low income students (chart from DPI)


In the next sentence, also with no evidence what so ever, she asserts the cause for this nonexistent achievement gain to be the “flexibility to design teaching methods that appeal to the needs of each student and to change modalities when they aren’t working.”  Since some charters, KIPP for instance,  are infamous for their inflexibility (and resultant push outs of students), this is a laughable generalization about charters.

The last line, the final assertion that “traditional district practices constrain flexibility is also counter to my experience as an MMSD parent.  The teachers my children have had — good and bad — have been very flexible in their teaching.  Even if my experience is not typical and the constraints on flexibility are a real problem isn’t the answer to work to free all teachers from these constraints, not set up a charter where only some children benefit from flexibility?

If these represent the best case for the new charter proposal, the Board should have an easy time rejecting it, unless political pressure holds sway.  I urge the Board to do what is right, not what might be popular.

In the spirit of honesty, I must state that my older son attends James C. Wright Middle School, a charter, if in name only.  At an earlier point in the history of the school, charter status may have been important.  In the years that I know about, Wright functions as a district specialty school, not a charter in any meaningful way.  I would a support a change in status for Wright to reflect this reality.

Thomas J. Mertz


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

2 responses to “The Charter Choice in Madison and the Nation

  1. Judy Kujoth

    There are a few points made by Mr. Mertz that require clarification. First, Charter schools that are instrumentalities of the school district, such as Nuestro Mundo, do NOT divert money away from traditional schools. Nuestro Mundo shares space with Frank Allis Elementary School, just as our proposed charter would have shared space with Sennett and eventually, with LaFollette High School. The school district funds these schools on the basis of per student allocations, diverting the appropriate amount of funding to each school based upon the number of students enrolled. What the traditional schools lack, is access to federal funding that is set aside exclusively for charter schools, which in this case was up to 1.1 million dollars over six years.

    Second, there is an expected achievement gap in dual language immersion schools that is not expected to be closed by non-Latino students until the end of fifth grade, and by Latino students until about seventh grade. While Nuestro Mundo would like to improve on some of their standardized test scores, it is ill-informed and irresponsible to suggest that because there is a gap, the school is not meeting its objectives. This achievement gap is unique to dual language immersion charter schools because of the unique nature in which these children learn. They are not learning to simply speak a second language. That could be accomplished by attending traditional schools and taking foreign language classes. What our students are doing is learning core content areas in two languages. This takes time. In order to assure the optimum success for English language learners, the first two years of elementary school are taught 90% in Spanish and 10% in English. You can imagine the challenge that these students face in taking standardized tests in English in third grade, when only about 30% of what they are learning at that point is actually taught in English.

    When I say that charter schools “often” have higher rates of achievement, that is because this is true. But obviously, it is not always the case. Like traditional schools, charters are not homogenized, one-sized-fits-all programs. Each school is run with a different philosophy, a different administrator, different teachers, using a variety of curricula, with different authorizers, etc. Some schools fail, while others achieve great measures of success. Those that fail should be held accountable, and if they cannot improve, should be closed. Charter schools are not to be used for the purpose of circumventing adherence to state and federal standards, but rather, as an innovative means to an end.

    Just as each child is special and unique in his or her own right, so is each school. There can be no dispute that not all children are able to achieve success in a traditional classroom setting. Therefore, not all children should be forced to have only traditional settings to choose from. That being said, it is not reasonable, especially in our low income area, for options to include only private schools which charge tuition. The beauty of charters is, in part, that they are not allowed to charge tuition. They are public schools, open to all students regardless of income, race, etc. They are also open to students that require special education and Nuestro Mundo now serves and would continue to serve children with a variety of special needs.

    Before deciding whether or not a charter school is a financially irresponsible option, you should ask these questions:
    1. Where else will the district get the 1.1 million dollars that the federal government is offering through DPI? Would that be from the taxpayers?

    2. How much is the district spending on consultants (Tara Fortune, training at the CARLA Institute, etc.) to help build the school that NMI was proposing to build at no charge?

    3. Ask the district for a detailed accounting of how their proposed school would differ in cost from the proposed school that NMI would create. Overhead costs for things such as heating and cooling, phones, utilities, etc. are fixed costs. Transportation and student meals would cost the same because we are only transporting and feeding kids that would be attending in that building regardless of what “school” they were enrolled in. Cost of staffing should not differ because both schools require bilingually certified educators and educators that are certified in core content areas. The district informed the BOE that NMI has proposed to hire a full time administrator. That was never true. Both programs would have to purchase some new text books and equipment, develop curricula, and provide professional development. Those costs should be the same no matter who is running the program. The difference is that NMI could have used additional federal funds to pay for those items, but the district cannot.

    I respect the opinions of both persons who believe in charters and those who still haven’t given up hope in traditional schools. I just wish that before such blogs were posted, the poster did their homework and truly understood how schools are funded and how DLI education differs from other models so that the achievement gap that is referred to could have been placed in the proper context.

  2. Ms Kujoth

    Thank you for your response.

    On your points one-by-one.

    I said nothing about local allocations, only Federal. The truth I noted — that public educational dollars earmarked for charter schools are public educational dollars that will not be going to regular district schools — remains. This isn’t magic tax revenue that gets created only for charters. It all comes from the same pool.

    I was being nice before by not saying much about the achievement scores, but everyone involved with NMI should be alarmed and ashamed by the performance of poor, Hispanic and ELL students. [Please see here for an apology and explanation for this sentence, added 3/35/09, 8:30 AM] The Mathematics scores — where language should be less of an issue — are actually worse than the reading scores I included. Anyone interested can look on the DPI site.

    In general I agree with you about the insanity of testing students in languages they don’t understand, however before posting I looked at standardized test scores for other DLI programs around the country (including ones that begin with the 90/10) and found nothing anywhere near as bad as NMI on early grade achievement and most of the things I found showed DLI students out performing their peers in the early grades (and some evidence of a later drop off, some of later gains). See here and here for examples.

    I had also heard talk of a projected “gap closure” in the latter grades, but in all my searching I could find no evidence that this has been established by research. I would appreciate it if you could direct me to some research supporting this confident assertion. What is this expectation based on?

    In light of the record on NMI and charters in general, I continue to find your rhetorically appealing but essentially meaningless phrase “often have higher rates of achievement” to be a bizarre and offensive muddying of the issues.

    Your thoughts on the uniqueness of children and schools are indisputable, but this doesn’t advance the case for charter schools. There are thousands of children in Madison’s district schools benefiting from programs, classrooms and services designed to meet their unique needs. The district DLI proposal would expand this number. No child in Madison is “forced” (more nice rhetoric) into a traditional setting and the clear goal of the district is that no child be kept exclusively in that setting if there are indications it isn’t working.

    You again use the possible availability of federal funds to bolster your case. Like with Reading First or abstinence only sex education, I believe that our district should refrain from embracing bad policies in pursuit of funding.

    You close by saying I do not “truly understand how schools are funded” and wishing I had done my “homework.” If you had done your homework, you would know that I have a very thorough knowledge of school funding at all levels. I await evidence that there is a strong likelihood that poor and Hispanic and ELL students will begin to achieve at NMI. I tried to do my homework on that and could find nothing.

    Our disagreement is not a product of my ignorance, it appears to be a disagreement over visions of public schools and the roles of charters. I believe that the Balkanization , the diversion of funding, the lack of direct control by elected governing bodies, and the self segregation charters create all undermine the necessary work of strengthening and improving the educational opportunities of all students. In cases where there are extreme and unmet needs that cannot be addressed by district schools or programs, I would support charters. This is not one of those cases by any stretch of the imagination.

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