Zweifel Foolish to Put Politics Ahead of Hard Data on Charter Schools

Capital Times Op-Ed Highlights Misguided Talking Points Instead of Actual Data on Independent Charter Schools

July 3, 2014

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Capital Times editor emeritus Dave Zweifel took a shot at independent charter schools in a column on Wednesday. Unfortunately, he ignored all of the benefits that Milwaukee’s students have seen from their 2R charter schools in order to launch an ad hominem attack on the schools’ supporters. In the process, he ignored the progress that’s taking place in Wisconsin’s largest district in order to turn the city’s pupils and families into a political pawn.

Zweifel hits all the standard red alert talking points in his article. He refers to these public schools as “private.” He name drops ALEC and Wal-Mart. He throws shade at Rocketship Academy, a 2R charter school that currently lacks the statistical data to show whether or not the school has been successful in its first year. He also claims that Rocketship has no art, music or gym classes, a statement that is entirely false.

He takes an altogether ignorant approach to these schools, deciding that state data on student performance has no place in his attack on independent charters. It’s a deliberately misleading piece designed only to serve his agenda.

First off, there is no such thing as a “private” charter school. They are funded and operated by the state. All rules that apply to public schools regarding enrollment apply to independent charters. No student can be turned away if a charter school – any charter school – has the space and means to educate that child. If demand outstrips availability, students are subjected to a random lottery to determine who gets in. This is a misconception that gets repeated all too often to be a simple mistake anymore.

Yes, there are conservative interests that support these charter schools. Should that really make a difference when 2R charter schools – the schools that fall outside of the Milwaukee Public School district and outside the leadership of the city’s school board – significantly outperform their peers despite educating a student body where more than 80 percent of pupils come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds? Should these results be ignored just because conservative groups support these programs?

Those advantages aren’t a conservative talking point – they are raw data from the state’s Department of Public Instruction. Here’s how the city’s public schools stacked up in 2012-13, the most recent school year that data is available. The results are mixed – instrumentality charter schools perform well and non-instrumentality ones struggle – but one group of schools stands out above the rest when you look at DPI’s scores – 2R charter schools.

Charter School Report Card Breakdown 2013

Those schools – the ranks of which Zweifel’s dreaded Rocketship Academy joined in 2013 – lead the district in average School Report Card score as well as WSAS results in both reading and mathematics. They do all this despite educating students that come from similar economic backgrounds as their peers in traditional MPS institutions. And this result is an extension of the performance we saw in 2011-12, the first year of School Report Card data:

Charter School Report Card Breakdown 2012 (1)

Charter School Report Card Breakdown 2012 (2)

Those are huge advantages for the city’s 2R charter programs – advantages in every grade and subject except for 10th grade reading. The former Cap Times editor brings up funding as well; that’s an interesting concept, especially for the state’s independent charters. Those 2R charter schools received $7,775 per student in 2013. Their MPS counterparts? $14,333.

Ignoring this data in an attempt to strike down independent charter schools creates a flawed argument. Independent charters are giving Milwaukee’s students greater opportunities to learn and grow, and they have outshined their peers when it comes to DPI metrics for student achievement, growth, and closing achievement gaps between groups of students.

While the jury is still out as to whether or not Rocketship will continue this trend – data from the school’s first year of operations will not be available until later in the summer – it’s completely unfair to bash all independent charters without so much as mentioning the progress they’ve demonstrated in Milwaukee – the district that has needed them the most.

Zweifel makes a point to spotlight problems in Michigan and Connecticut but ignores the success that has taken place in his own backyard. His editorial is a laundry list of anti-charter talking points that eschews the most important piece of the puzzle – that students in these schools are performing better than their peers. They may be a threat to public education, but not because of who supports them – they are a threat because parents in search of a quality education are turning to the schools that are making greater progress.

Creating more high-quality environments for students is not a bad thing – it’s the exact opposite. Why would anyone want to limit that?