Selected readings on US charter schools
Despite having more freedom over curriculum, budgets and staffing than traditional public schools, the majority of Milwaukee’s independent charter schools are not meeting performance expectations, according to statewide report card results for 2012-’13.
Of the 17 independent charters in Milwaukee that received a rating through the state’s new school report card accountability system, 53% fell below expectations, with two schools authorized by the City of Milwaukee receiving a failing grade.
The report cards released by the state this month are not perfect measures of school progress, but the results still raise questions about whether independent charters should be producing better results. The schools are publicly financed but privately managed, and are given freedom from bureaucratic restraints on school districts in exchange for upholding a promise to deliver on performance.
“It’s pretty clear we all have work to do,” said Cindy Zautcke, who directs the City of Milwaukee’s charter school initiative.
The discussion about performance is also pertinent because of a new law the state Legislature passed this spring that allows independent charter schools to expand to the five-county Milwaukee area, if the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee agrees to authorize the potential schools.
Historically, independent charters have existed mostly in Milwaukee, where they operate through contracts — or charters — with either the Milwaukee Common Council or UWM.
One independent charter is in Racine: 21st Century Preparatory School, authorized by UW-Parkside. It also fell below expectations on the new report cards.
Most of the hundreds of charter schools in Wisconsin are authorized by the local school district, and are less controversial because the students in the charter schools are counted for state aid purposes.
The latest report card data show:
■ A total of 18 independent charter schools were rated, including 17 in Milwaukee and one in Racine. Together those rated schools enrolled almost 7,500 students.
■ In Milwaukee, independent charters authorized by UWM posted better overall grades than schools authorized by Milwaukee’s Common Council. The average report card score out of 100 for UWM charters was 65.7, compared with 57.8 for the city’s charter schools.
■ As a sector, Milwaukee’s independent charter schools outscored Milwaukee Public Schools. Among independent charters in the city, 47% met or exceeded the state’s expectations. In MPS, 25% of the rated schools met or exceeded expectations.
■ But on a percentage basis, the 134 schools rated in MPS educated three times as many students learning English and twice as many students with special needs, compared with independent charters. The charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of white students and lower percentage of students in poverty than MPS.
■ Independent charter schools that demonstrated the most growth with students in kindergarten through eighth grade did not necessarily have the highest overall report card scores, according to the data. The top schools ranked by student growth were Milwaukee Scholars Charter School and Capitol West Academy, both authorized by UWM, and Central City Cyberschool and Milwaukee Math and Science Academy, both authorized by the City of Milwaukee.
Some independent charters showed notable gains from 2011-’12, the first year of the report cards, to 2012-’13. Tenor High School, a small school near Cathedral Square Park that’s authorized by UWM, jumped into the “meets expectations” category.
Other charters did not show improvement in the second round of report cards. Urban Day School, a UWM-authorized charter, did not meet expectations in both annual report cards.
Jodi Weber, assistant executive director of Seeds of Health, the nonprofit that runs Tenor High School and several other urban charter schools, said the new results showed that changes they made in previous years were paying off: mandatory summer school, longer English classes, extra math labs for struggling students.
Seeds of Health Executive Director Marcia Spector added that UWM requires the schools to submit to internal evaluations and to be compliant in all programming and financial matters. If her schools were not, Spector said, UWM could shut them down.
Veritas High School, another school under the Seeds of Health umbrella, did not meet all expectations in the report cards. Spector said Veritas is a good school but had one low-scoring class of students, which had an amplified effect on the school’s overall score.
Paul Haubrich, the interim director of the Office of Charter Schools at UWM, said its highest-scoring schools, such as Milwaukee College Prep.-36th St., Bruce-Guadalupe Community School and Woodlands, have done well by sticking to their mission and pushing achievement.
Two schools with the lowest scores of schools UWM authorizes, Urban Day School and Milwaukee Scholars, are newer additions to the lineup, Haubrich said.
“For both schools that are struggling, the report card data will have a significant role to play in our decision-making process for contract continuation,” Haubrich said.
Report card questioned
Sean Roberts, president of Milwaukee Charter School Advocates, said there are still flaws in the report card school accountability system, especially at the high school level, where almost all data relies on one test: the state achievement test taken at the beginning of 10th grade.
“More than half of the schools would be meeting expectations,” if the report cards were a better measure, Roberts said.
Roberts also said he didn’t think it was appropriate to draw conclusions about the quality of charter school authorizers based on report card scores of their schools.
The two City of Milwaukee-authorized schools that received the lowest grade, “fails to meet expectations,” were Milwaukee Math and Science Academy and Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, formerly called CEO Leadership Academy and connected to voucher school advocate Howard Fuller.
Zautcke said Milwaukee Math and Science has had several leadership changes. Milwaukee Collegiate Academy has pretty good college placement rates, she said, but the scores were still a concern.
“I would be surprised if there isn’t some really deep questioning of that school,” Zautcke said.
She said the Common Council may shut down low-performing charters it authorizes, a power it flexed several years ago when it closed the Academy of Learning and Leadership in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood.
The Common Council can also vote to put the schools on probation or require them to submit to additional monitoring.
“We know there’s a new and higher bar, and we need to double-down and figure out how to meet it,” Zautcke said.
Source: The Journal Sentinel – by Erin Richards