Milwaukee Teachers’ Union President Attacks Successful Schools

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February 6, 2014

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Last Wednesday, Bob Peterson – President of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association – took aim at Wisconsin’s school accountability plan. He sounded alarm bells about the possibility that chronically underperforming schools could be shut down and reopened as charter programs if they don’t improve over a three to five year span. However, his claims don’t hold up once you push through the surface tension of a screed that’s more concerned with independent charter school operators than the performance and growth of students themselves.

Here are a few of the issues that Peterson raises that just don’t hold water.

“Republican legislators, using the rhetoric of “accountability,” are aiming for the jugular of public education. A fast-track bill now before the Wisconsin Senate calls for the wholesale privatization of public schools in the state, in particular Milwaukee.

Under the bill, “failing” public schools will be forced to close or be handed over to privately run charters — whether or not a locally elected school board thinks this is a good idea, and whether or not the school board has a community-based improvement plan.”

Let’s get this out of the way first and foremost. No matter how many times he says “privately run”, there is no such thing as a private charter school. All charter schools are public schools. They receive funding from the state and have to work under the guidelines set by DPI. They cannot pick and choose students. They have to accept any student who applies until enrollment caps are hit, and then applicants are subjected to a random lottery for open seats.

And how do these schools perform? In Milwaukee, independent charter schools are significantly out-performing their counterparts in reading, math, and Wisconsin’s new School Report Cards. In fact, these schools are performing so well that their success was the reason behind the decision to convert failing schools to charter programs.

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Under the current accountability proposal, chronically failing schools would be shut down and rebuilt by a high-performing charter school. That means the only programs that can undertake this rehabilitation are the ones with a proven track record of success. For many schools, this means finding a way to reach students and glean progress in Milwaukee, the state’s most embattled district. That’s also where Wisconsin’s charter schools have seen the most growth – thanks mostly to the performance of the independent 2R charter schools that operate in the district.

Public school advocates can bemoan the lack of control and the bleakness of shutting down a public school, but the fact of the matter is that intervention and turnaround programs do not work. Dr. David Stuit covered this in his 2010 study Are Bad Schools Immortal?, which looked at turnaround models across the country and even focused on Wisconsin as one of 10 test states. Despite Herculean efforts to reform chronically underperforming schools, less than 10 percent of these programs ended with even moderate improvement. Only one percent of those programs qualified as making a significant turnaround. In fact, these schools were more likely to close, despite intensive efforts to repair them, than they were to show progress.

Advocacy groups are throwing the term “privately run” and “takeover” around as if they are threats. Unfortunately, those buzzwords cover up the progress these schools are making, especially in a troubled district like Milwaukee. Rather than allow classrooms to remain on their path of failure with little realistic hope of a turnaround, this shutdown-and-rebuild model offers more opportunities for schools to reach students by breaking the mold of a traditional classroom and tapping into what has shown to work with traditionally tough-to-educate students.

“As for the bill’s alleged concern with “accountability,” the most blatant hypocrisy involves private voucher schools. Failing voucher schools will not be required to close, but merely prevented from enrolling additional students.”

Voucher schools are not public schools any more than a supermarket that accepts food stamps is a public supermarket. By cutting off vouchers to failing schools, the government would wash their hands of a chronically underperforming program while leaving a choice for current students. They can choose to continue in their failing school – but why would they?

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Other than that, these schools are private entities. Without voucher money, they don’t receive state funding. Should the government be able to shut down private programs – programs that are funded by citizens and the income they earn?

Instead, why not put that decision in the hands of parents? If parents are not satisfied with a failing school, they would not choose a failing school. Plus, these parents will have more information at their disposal than ever before thanks to the School Report Cards. New, tougher standards have stripped the state’s proficiency scores of their sugar coating as well, making in clear that Wisconsin students are falling behind their national and global peers in subjects like reading and math. While many parents are shocked to see a local school labeled as “failing,” that’s not just an arbitrary designation. That’s the result of poor performance over time, measured against a system developed by lawmakers, the Department of Public Instruction and educational stakeholders from across the state in 2011.

“It’s unclear how the bill will play across the state. But stay tuned. Rumors are that the bill is being re-crafted so that it is “less favorable” to the Milwaukee Public Schools.”

We close with a completely unfounded, unsourced rumor. However, it’s easy to think that Milwaukee is the target of any accountability program. That’s because Milwaukee is home to the most failing schools of any district in the state – both overall and by volume. Any program that aims at turning around, shutting down, or transforming chronically low-performing public schools is going to have its roots in Milwaukee. That’s just an unavoidable fact.

In fact, the district itself just laid out a plan to address 25 of their 48 failing schools last week. Is it unfair to pass a program that ends up focusing much of its efforts on Milwaukee? Only if you think that it’s unfair that students that are falling behind get more attention and efforts to catch up in the classroom to match their peers.

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