The school board for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is ramping up its rhetoric against charter schools in the city. A recent school board meeting on whether to renew the Carmen school network’s lease and contract with the school board became a debate about the concept of charter schools in general, with low-income, predominantly minority students, caught in the middle.
This shift by some members of the school board is part of growing opposition to charter schools among liberals. Schools that enjoyed bipartisan support as recently as the Obama administration are increasingly equated with private school choice by the teachers unions and their sympathizers. But even for those that oppose giving low-income families educational options, Carmen represents among the hardest foundations on which to build a case.
Carmen schools have long been a bright spot in the dreary landscape of Milwaukee achievement. Carmen South routinely is rated as exceeding expectation on the state’s report cards, and the network’s other schools are making progress in the right direction as well. Dr. Patricia Hoben is as passionate a school leader as you will ever meet, and genuinely wants to expand educational opportunities for kids in Milwaukee. It was this undeniable record of success that led MPS to allow a partnership between Carmen and the failing Pulaski High School in 2015, with the hopes that some of what worked at Carmen could rub off on the other school.
Most observers hoped MPS might be willing to learn from what works at Carmen rather than seeking to undermine them at every turn. But, whether due to the departure of former Superintendent Darienne Driver or other factors, that hope seems to have been extinguished. MPS Director Larry Miller is absurdly referring to charters as “the new segregation.” It is increasingly clear that Milwaukee is an unfriendly environment for charter schools, and high-quality charters looking to expand—or even continue to exist—may have to look to the University of Wisconsin System for contracts.
I have covered previously the notion that charter schools discriminate against children with disabilities. In the case of Carmen, the disability rates in most of its schools exceed those of MPS specialty schools like Reagan. Indeed, 29 schools in Milwaukee have lower rates of disability than Carmen High School of Science, according to the most recent information available from DPI.
The bottom line is that Milwaukee is a city with such high percentages of students in poverty and special needs that it is all but impossible to build a school reliant on any other group of students. And schools like Carmen do a better job educating such students at a lower cost to taxpayers. Non-instrumentality charters like Carmen are among the highest performing schools in the city, even after accounting for the demographic composition of their students.
If school board members in Milwaukee truly care about the education of the city’s children, it is incumbent on them to put aside the heated rhetoric coming from teachers unions and focus on the facts. Remember well the words of President Barack Obama, who knew that schools like Carmen “ignite imagination and nourish the minds of America’s young people while finding new ways of educating them and equipping them with the knowledge they need to succeed.”
Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.