Madison’s Achievement Gap Grows While the School Board and City Continue to Ignore Charter Success

July 19, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

On Thursday, Chris Rickert – writer for the Wisconsin State Journal – thankfully reminded us about Madison’s dirty little secret. The district has a huge problem when it comes to the achievement gap – how students from different races are learning – and little in terms of a plan to fix it.

Indeed, Madison has one of the largest achievement gaps in Wisconsin. While 86.7 percent of white students in the district graduated in 2012, only 53.1 percent of their African American classmates could say the same. That’s a graduation difference of nearly 34 percent. Even Milwaukee, the state’s most embattled district, beats Madison on this very important issue. African American students in Milwaukee Public Schools were six percent more likely to graduate than their counterparts in MMSD.

For a city that goes out of its way to preach utopian equality and the great successes of union-run public schools, Madison’s lack of an answer for the achievement gap should come as a shock.

Here’s how the district stacked up, in terms of graduation rates, with the state’s other large districts:

Wisconsin HS Grad Rates.png

Then-Superintendent Dan Nerad pushed to address this disparity with a $104 million special project that would overhaul Madison schools over five years. It included initiatives that grew from the state’s Read to Lead program in emphasizing reading in early childhood, prepared the district to implement ACT testing and stronger systems for college readiness, and would ensure safer classrooms. Nerad’s plan also would have engaged families and drawn greater attention to the culture and backgrounds of these students.

Whether or not Nerad’s plan would be effective is quickly becoming a moot point. After cutting funding for his program in half last year, the district plans to hold funding flat. While bits and pieces of his initiatives will live on, the Building Our Future plan won’t have the impact that it set out to have under a scaled-back model. Instead, new Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham will release a plan on July 29th to address the achievement gap – only, it seems, with less funding and less importance.

If the district won’t spend money for a high-cost plan, then cost-effective reform seems like the most viable option. However, Madison hasn’t shown any willingness to change, particularly when it comes to cost-effective measures like charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the umbrella of traditional bureaucratic red tape at approximately 55 percent of the funding that these other schools receive. Currently, only three charter schools exist in the city, a ratio significantly lower than other large districts in the state.

Amount of Charter Schools Table.png

Recent actions show the district will continue to reject the idea of successful charter schools. A pair of Urban League charter schools called the Madison Preparatory Academy – one all-male and one all-female – were proposed back in 2010. These schools were created to directly address the achievement gap by catering to the city’s minority and low-income students and following the path that charter schools like KIPP Academy and Rocketship Schools have taken to promote student growth in inner cities like Houston and San Jose.

The project, headed by Urban League President Kaleem Caire, may have been doomed from the start. Madison Prep was slated to be a non-instrumentality school, meaning it would be the only school in the district that fell outside the influence of the teachers’ union. After a lengthy battle with a teacher union friendly school board, it became clear that Madison had no interest in authorizing Caire’s charter. Unwilling to stand up to the local union, this plan to address the achievement gap in Madison was mothballed.

Little has been done since to address their significantly awful achievement gap. The district has presented several stopgap measures and done little to follow through with meaningful change. Alternatives have been introduced to the public, but rarely acted on. As a result, a district in one of Wisconsin’s flagship cities now boasts a significantly worse graduation rate for African American students than the most criticized district in Wisconsin – Milwaukee.

Can Madison afford to fail its students like this much longer?

The Madison School Board’s doubts that independent charters would be successful should be calmed by their track record in Milwaukee. That success appeared in the first iteration of the state’s school report cards and continued onto WSAS testing. Students in independent 2R charter schools in Milwaukee outscored their traditional public school and instrumentality charter schools in reading and math in fourth, sixth, and eighth grade.

Charter School Percentages Table 2.png

Madison, however, hasn’t been willing to give these schools a chance. To be fair, only one school outside of Milwaukee currently operates as a 2R charter (in Racine). So where does that leave the district?

More importantly, where does that leave the students who are falling behind in a district that has few plans to help them?