It’s National Charter Schools Week, a great time to assess the state-of-play for charter schools both in Wisconsin and around the country. With the tendency among politicians and the news media to reference charter schools as a scapegoat for issues in K-12 public education and a hostile Wisconsin governor who recommended a moratorium of independent charters schools, it is not surprising that no proclamation in support of charter schools has come down from the governor’s office this week. But it is a missed opportunity to recognize the public charter schools that are serving thousands of Wisconsin students across the state.
Public charter schools are a school choice option for Wisconsin families who want to continue to send their children to public schools but are unhappy with their traditional public school options. Wisconsin has several types of charter schools – independent, non-instrumentality and instrumentality.
Independent charter schools are separate from the local school district and are overseen by other entities like the City of Milwaukee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and University of Wisconsin Office of Educational Opportunity. For this school year, there are 26 independent charter schools between Milwaukee, Racine and Madison. Though independent charters are growing out-state, the vast majority of these current schools are in Milwaukee.
Both non-instrumentality and instrumentality charter schools are connected to the local school district but have varying degrees of regulations and requirements compared to traditional public schools. For instance, non-instrumentality charters do not have to hire unionized teachers.
Across the state, over 90 school districts have some type of charter school available this year. There is clearly a demand for options outside of the traditional public schools from parents across the state.
When compared to their public school peers, Wisconsin’s independent and non-instrumentality charter schools outperform public schools in academics on both of the state’s report card and in reports conducted by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. In the most recent Apples to Apples study, independent charters and non-instrumentalities outperformed proficiency rates in traditional public schools by 8% and 12% respectively in math. Independent charters outperformed traditional public schools by 5% in English.
Both independent and non-instrumentality charter schools primarily serve economically disadvantaged and minority students, some of the most vulnerable students in our state. With Milwaukee and Madison schools competing for the awful title of largest racial achievement gap in the country, we should be encouraging charter schools to offer additional choices to low-income and minority families.
Despite the proven benefits of charter schools, they are often under attack. For example, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) argues that non-instrumentality charter schools divert resources and students from the traditional schools. This anti-charter rhetoric came to a head in January when the board debated whether to continue its contract with Carmen Schools of Science and Technology Network schools. The Carmen Network is a group of four charter schools located throughout Milwaukee that serve 1,700 students. Ultimately the board extended Carmen’s contract for another two years with the addition of significant oversight.
Yet anti-charter rhetoric is seemingly successful in Milwaukee– all five of the union-backed MPS Board members successfully campaigned on the high number of non-instrumentality charter schools that contract with MPS this past April. But what MTEA and several MPS board members fail to understand is that the district’s overall academic performance is bolstered by its 17 non-instrumentality charter schools, including the Carmen network schools.
The district is also making money off of the non-instrumentality charter schools. Since the district determines the per-pupil amount that non-instrumentality charter schools receive, which is less than their traditional schools, the district gets to keep the remaining amount. In a recent report, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty reviewed 13 charter school contracts for 2016-17 and found that MPS makes about $15 million per year from students attending non-instrumentality public charter schools.
Instead of attacking charter schools, we should be celebrating the successful education they have provided to so many Wisconsin students. Consider Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, an independent charter school, which is celebrating 100% college acceptance and over $2.5 million in scholarship dollars awarded to its high school students. Or Milwaukee College Prep, a network of K-8 non-instrumentality charter schools that were rated some of Milwaukee’s top performing schools on the state’s report card. Or consider One City School, an independent charter school in Madison, that is a kindergarten designed to serve predominately low-income and minority students to address the racial achievement gap. These schools are making a difference across the state and they deserve to be supported and celebrated.
Libby Sobic is the Director & Legal Counsel of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.