If anyone should understand the different types of charter schools, it should be the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s education reporter. Yet to make a political point about independent charter schools, reporter Annysa Johnson confuses two kinds of charter schools by mislabeling one troubled charter operator.

The Journal Sentinel reported on Thursday about former Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) President Michael Bonds being arrested for allegedly receiving kickbacks from a charter school company, Universal Companies, “in return for votes beneficial to the company between 2014 and 2016.”

After explaining the charges against Bonds, Johnson reported:

There is a growing concern nationally about independent charter schools, which receive government funds but are run by private or nonprofit boards and often are not held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools. They were a central issue in the recent MPS elections in which a slate of candidates critical of independent charter schools swept five seats.

Bob Peterson, former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association who won the citywide at-large seat in this month’s election, called Universal’s Milwaukee schools “independent charter schools at their worst.”

“The federal indictment and the previous actions of Universal charter schools is a cautionary reminder why we should be wary of spending public money on privately run charter schools,” he said.

But the schools run by Universal Companies were not independent charter schools, they were non-instrumentality charter schools chartered by MPS.

“A charter school is a tuition free public school created on the basis of a contract or ‘charter’ between the school and a local school board or other authorizer,” MPS helpfully explains on their website. “A charter school has more freedom than a traditional public school in return for a commitment to meet higher standards of accountability.”

MPS non-instrumentality charter (NIC) schools:

  • Hire their own staff who are not MPS employees
  • May implement a Title IA targeted assistance model if the school’s poverty rate is at least 35%
  • May implement a Title IA schoolwide model if the school’s poverty rate is at least 40% and if their application is approved by the WI Department of Public Instruction
  • Are reimbursed for their Title I services by Milwaukee Public School District

Universal Companies is on the MPS list of non-instrumentality charter schools from that period.

However, “independent charter schools,” which Johnson inaccurately uses in her story about Bonds, are charter schools that are not authorized by a school district.

Had Universal Companies been an independent charter school operator as Johnson claimed, they wouldn’t have needed Bonds’ support. They would have needed the support of an independent charter school authorizer. In Milwaukee, those include the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Common Council, and the board of the Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Johnson’s failure to understand the difference between the two comes at a perilous political time for independent charter schools. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ education budget includes halting the authorization of new independent charter schools by the Office of Educational Opportunity and would require the approval of the Department of Public Instruction to approve any more independent charter schools, effectively freezing the program despite the educational successes of those schools. Disadvantaged children, most of them minorities, will be devastated if this educational option is taken away.

Misreporting an alleged scandal involving an MPS charter to make it look like an independent charter school was involved does not serve the public. But given the biggest newspaper in the state’s lack of interest in the successes of the different forms of school choice in the city where the school choice revolution began, should we be surprised that Johnson couldn’t tell the difference between the types of charter schools? Especially when a political point could be made.