Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Does City Hall have a clue what's going on at the city's charter schools?

By Barbara J. Miner

It seemed like a simple idea: follow up on a recent media report about the rise in “independent” charter schools in Milwaukee and get specific lists of such charters overseen by the City of Milwaukee, by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and by the Milwaukee Public Schools.
Little did I know that this simple idea would become an ordeal.
Getting lists of this year’s charters from MPS and UWM was relatively easy via their websites. Getting a list from the City of Milwaukee was an exercise in frustration. It took me two days, eight hours on the phone and computer, and dozens of emails before a list was sent to me.
Which made me wonder. Does anybody at City Hall have a clue what’s really going on at the city’s charter schools?
There are 11,938 students in the “independent” charters in Milwaukee, with the schools funded by more than $92 million in taxpayer dollars. Most of the students are at City of Milwaukee and UWM charters, where lines of responsibility and public oversight are, to say the least, murky.
Given the difficulties in getting the most basic of information from the city— a list of its schools — it became impossible to shake the fear that public oversight of these charter school dollars is shrinking almost as fast as the independent charters are growing.
From what I can tell, “independent” has become a euphemism for easing the public out and turning schools over to private entities that operate with minimal public input and transparency. “Privately run” seems a far better description of such charter schools.
But shouldn’t we be worried when we use public tax dollars to shift the education of our children to private interests skilled at circumventing public transparency and oversight?
If, for example, a problem erupts at an MPS school, you know who to call: your local school board member or the MPS central office. But what if there’s a problem at a City of Milwaukee or UWM charter. Who do you call? I’m not sure anyone really knows.

Charter schools are the latest rage in education, particularly charters that operate independent of a school district’s democratically elected school board. A little background is helpful.
Charter schools have their roots among progressive educators in the 1990s who wanted charter contracts with school districts so they could operate outside the bureaucracy and experiment. The goal was to improve academic achievement, strengthen the connections between school and community, and use the lessons learned to improve public schools overall.
Thankfully, some charter schools still uphold those values. But in recent years, the charter movement has become the darling of hedge-fund managers and entrepreneurs who see a big pot of money in public schools. And it is these forces that are driving the charter school movement’s dominant agenda of promoting privately run charters that are independent of school board supervision.
Like their private-sector counterparts, these charter entrepreneurs tend to chafe at public oversight and control. They also know that market share is the name of the game. Thus there has been a proliferation of national franchises of charters, which use cost-efficient, cookie-cutter programs that they market to financially strapped urban districts.
Not surprisingly, the growth of charters has coincided with the market-place approach to education that has gained supremacy in recent decades. In this education marketplace, students and families are consumers, not deciders, and “choice” is the king of all values. (Whether there is much qualitative difference in Milwaukee’s “choices” is another matter, given that the schools in the city are circumscribed by harsh realities of overwhelming poverty, joblessness and segregation.)
In Milwaukee, three different entities grant charters: the City of Milwaukee, UWM, and MPS. All City of Milwaukee and UWM charters are “independent” charters run by the private organizations that are granted the charter. MPS has two types of charters, both of which answer to the elected school board: “instrumentality” charters that are staffed by district employees and follow many of the guidelines that apply to all MPS schools, and “non-instrumentalities” that are “independent” charters run as private entities. (Is your head spinning with all these details yet?)
Back to my search for a list of the independent charter schools in Milwaukee.

I knew that a list from the City of Milwaukee was especially important. The city’s charters are on the biggest growth spurt, and the city has been in the forefront of signing contracts with charter management franchises based in other cities.
I started my search at the City of Milwaukee webpage — my go-to spot for all sorts of information, from winter parking regulations to the fall leaf collection schedule. At first, it seemed I was in luck. The drop-down box on the right-hand side of the homepage, right under “Contact Elected Officials,” had a link for “Explore Education Options.” I clicked.
Imagine my dismay, however, when the new web page had absolutely nothing on the city’s charter schools. There were links to MPS, to a private school directory, to the voucher program, to colleges and universities, and to information on student aid and other educational resources.
But not a word about City of Milwaukee charter schools. Which inevitably led to the question: Does City Hall know, or even much care, what happens at its schools?
I then tried my next-best Internet trick. I wrote “charter schools” in the web page’s search button. Most of the matches were useless ¬— one took me back to the Explore Education Options site. But the top match (Charter School Application) provided a name and phone number. I wasn’t interested in applying to start a charter school, but I figured that person could help. I called the number.
Once again my hopes were dashed. The person answering the phone was extremely nice — but she was at the Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. She wasn’t even a City of Milwaukee employee.
I asked her who would be the best person to contact at City Hall, and she gave me the name and number of a person in the department of administration she worked with. I called the number and left a message explaining I was looking for information on the City of Milwaukee charters.
I have learned not to wait for return phone calls from City Hall, so I did what every frustrated taxpayer does. I contacted the members of the Common Council. After all, the city charter contracts are subject to the Common Council’s approval. As the saying goes, the buck stops there.
I emailed each alderman and asked for a list of the city’s charters, including contact information and basic data on student demographics and enrollment, and for any type of annual report on the charters. I also asked each alderman which charter schools are in their district.
Six of the aldermen replied. None had a list of City of Milwaukee charters, although they suggested whom I could contact. Only one alderman, Jim Bohl, responded to my question about charters in his district. He said he did not have any.
Several forwarded my request to the city’s Legislative Reference Bureau, which provided links to further information, including how to find reports on schools that the city contracted with last year. It turns out the bureau’s data was incomplete, but it was better than nothing.
But my simple goal that started it all was still elusive. I still could not find a list of this year’s City of Milwaukee charter schools
I went to bed Monday night wondering what it would take to get the information.
On Tuesday morning, just as I was ready to start at it again, the woman at the Department of Administration returned my call. (Thank god for hard-working support staff.)
A few emails and about 40 minutes later — and more than a day after I started my quest — she emailed me a list of the City of Milwaukee’s nine charter schools for 2012-13. She didn’t have the number of students enrolled, but at least she had a list.
If anything, however, I was more concerned than when I started.
If the City of Milwaukee wants to be a major player in educating our city’s children, shouldn’t the aldermen have a better sense of the city’s charter schools? If nothing else, a list of the schools?
Who’s really in charge of the City of Milwaukee charter schools? Why did the only phone number for charters on the city’s website lead to the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette?
Stay tuned. I have a feeling that, when it comes to public transparency and input, problems in getting a list of City of Milwaukee charters may be just the tip of the iceberg.
This blog is cross-posted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

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