Madison Schools Slow to Realize Need to Compete

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

It turns out that perhaps not every parent is happy when teachers walk off the job to join a protest, or when teachers see a doctor on the Capitol Square for a fake medical excuse. Some parents in Madison take their children’s educations very seriously. They may not be all that tolerant of teachers taking their children on an impromptu field trip to the Capitol to protest “some dude.”

For other parents in Madison, they are concerned about the education their children may or may not be receiving from the Madison Metropolitan School District. Madison has one of the highest racial achievement gaps in the country. Clearly the school district is failing some students, and some parents are through giving the district chances.


Parents all over Wisconsin are looking for choices, and Madison is no exception. We learned last week from the Wisconsin State Journal that the district had a net loss of 700 students due to open enrollment this year. Over 900 students left the district while 213 came into the district. According to a survey in 2009, 15% of the students leaving the district went to attend online charter schools, or virtual schools.

With the expansion of the window for open enrollment, the number of students transferring out to nearby districts or to online charter schools will likely increase. Belatedly, the Madison school district has discovered they are in competition.

Madison Superintendent Dan Nerad is reported to be considering another survey, and the creation of “magnet” schools to stem the loss of students. In response to past losses to open enrollment, the district improved school security, added more talented-and-gifted programming, and expanded dual language immersion classrooms, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

That is quite a change in strategy for the Madison district. As recently as the fall of 2010, the Madison school district joined the Wisconsin Association of School Boards in lobbying for further restrictions on open enrollment.

Even as the reality of parental choice and competition is finally sinking in Madison, the district is still slow to adjust. Just this last December the district decided against the creation of a new charter school that was intended to help young, low-income African American males in the district, the very constituency the district admits it is failing.

Now the district is considering a plan to improve minority student performance, perhaps not coincidentally. (Of course, if the district is really serious about improving minority student performance, perhaps they should reconsider their decision on the proposed Madison Prep charter school, but that’s a topic for another column altogether.)

School choice through open enrollment is having an impact on the responsiveness of the Madison district to the desires of the parents, if belatedly. The ideas of magnet schools and more immersion schools to attract enrollment shows competition does work. Competitive pressure is making the Madison district change to try to meet student needs, because right now the parents are choosing to send the students in the district elsewhere.

The Wisconsin State Journal quotes Andrew Statz, the district’s chief information officer, “We have to have a conversation about what do open enrollment levels mean.”

The expansion of Open Enrollment that recently became law in Wisconsin is sure to foster competitive pressures among school districts. The results for parents? More responsive administrators, more opportunities for their children and, ultimately, better schools.

The educational landscape is changing faster than the educational bureaucrats can comprehend, but they’ll catch on, eventually.

Perhaps Nerad should have a conversation with his counterpart at the Beloit School District. Last year Beloit was being considered as a possible site for a private school choice program. Superintendent Milt Thompson said to the Beloit Daily News, “My concern is that the district has to become conscious of today’s market. If you have a system that is attractive, people will send their kids here. If you don’t, the days of an educational monopoly are over.”