Wisconsin students and families may finally have more access to independent, non-union charter schools

Mar 1, 2013 by

MADISON, Wis. – There are two major obstacles that can cause great distress for charter school operators: Stubborn local school boards that won’t allow them to open schools, and unions that insist on organizing their teachers.

The state of Wisconsin may be taking steps to address both problems in areas other than Milwaukee.

State action is not required in Milwaukee, because school administrators seem sold on the idea of having more independent, non-union charter schools in the city, largely for financial reasons.

While there are quite a few charter schools in outstate Wisconsin, most of them are “instrumentality” charter schools, which means they are authorized by the school boards in the districts where they are located.

They need permission from school boards to open, the boards have the power to close them when their charter expires, and their teachers are generally required to join the local union.

In other words, for a charter school to open outside of Milwaukee, it usually has to agree to become a lot like the public school down the road. So much for the concept of autonomous charters and real school choice.

But that may change to some degree, thanks to a new proposal in Gov. Scott Walker’s biannual budget plan that was presented to state lawmakers last week.

New authorizers, new types of charter schools

Walker has proposed the formation of a state Charter School Oversight Board, which would have the power to license non-profit organizations to become charter school authorizers. Those new authorizers would be able to open new charter schools anywhere in the state, with or without the approval of local school boards.

There are a few glitches to the plan. While new authorizers would be able to establish new charter schools anywhere, only kids from districts with at least 4,000 students and at least two failing schools would be allowed to attend without their school board’s permission.

Those standards currently apply to only 10 school districts in the state, outside of Milwaukee. But those districts have a lot of students, and many of them are stuck in very bad schools. The new charter authorizing method may provide them with new hope.

Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Gov. Walker, said the proposal would create another way for students in every part of the state to have access to some type of quality school, whether it’s their traditional public school, an independent charter school, or a private school in the state’s voucher program.

“Parents will be able to have that choice,” Werwie told EAGnews.

In Wisconsin and throughout the nation, many would-be charter schools never get off the ground because local school boards refuse to authorize them. That’s not terribly surprising. The last thing local school boards want is competition for students and the state dollars attached to them.

A perfect example is Madison Prep, a proposed charter school that would have operated in the Madison, Wisconsin school district and specialized in working with struggling black students. The Madison school board vetoed the school in 2011, because it would have taken money from the district and would have been independent of the district, with non-union teachers.

Needless to say, the board’s decision to block the formation of the school was supported by Madison Teachers Inc., the local teachers union.

A few other states besides Wisconsin have been addressing this type of problem. In Georgia, voters recently approved a constitutional amendment creating a state agency that can approve the opening of charter schools that are rejected by local school boards.

Voters in Washington State recently approved a ballot measure allowing charter schools into their state for the first time. The framers of the ballot proposal were smart enough to include the formation of a state agency with the power to authorize charter schools without local school board approval.

Tennessee lawmakers are considering legislation that would create the same type of agency.

Walker’s Charter School Oversight Board, working through alternative authorizers, would have the power to do the same thing.

Getting away from the unions

New charter schools formed under Walker’s proposal would not be under the thumb of local school boards, and therefore would not have to honor school board demands to have unionized teachers.

That could prove to be a major blessing, even at a time when teachers unions are at a low point in Wisconsin.

Charter schools throughout most of the nation are different for a lot of reasons. They are not bound by the type of bureaucratic nonsense that cripples so many traditional schools. They have the freedom to be experimental and innovative, in exchange for promised results. If they are not successful they can be closed when their charters expire.

Perhaps their biggest advantage is that they tend not to hire union teachers or engage in collective bargaining.

That means the schools are free from all the “do’s” and “don’ts” that typically come in union contracts. They can make staffing decisions to best serve their needs without union approval. They can hold teachers accountable for student learning without union approval.

Their payrolls also tend to be smaller, because non-union teachers are less expensive. That means more money to invest in classrooms.

Best of all, there is no built-in adversity between administrators and teachers, which frequently exists in union schools.

The ability of Wisconsin charter schools to operate without union teachers may have been more important a few years ago, before Act 10 greatly limited the power and influence of public sector unions, and did away with forced membership.

But Act 10 is still being legally challenged and there is no absolute guarantee it will survive. Courts could still strike down all or part of the statute, putting the unions right back in business.

And even if Act 10 survives, there will still be some school boards out there (Madison comes to mind) that are dedicated to the old way, and will still allow local unions to call most of the shots. New charter schools authorized by independent agencies wouldn’t have to be part of any of that.

Sarah Toce, former executive director of Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, said in 2011 that the presence of teachers unions in so many charter schools has been a source of frustration.

“The idea of chartering is that there are teachers who desire to do things differently,” Toce said at the time. “It’s been our experience that being in a union impedes their ability to do the things they set out to do. They are extremely frustrated by rules that keep them from implementing charters faithfully.”

Milwaukee headed in the right direction

Milwaukee Public Schools authorize numerous charter schools within the city. There are two different types.

The more traditional charters are staffed by MPS employees and have union teaching staffs, like most other charters around the state. But an increasing number of MPS charter schools don’t hire MPS teachers and don’t have unions.

The school district seems to be embracing the more independent model. A school board committee recently approved an application of a Philadelphia charter operator to open two new non-union campuses in the district next year, and that trend seems to be gaining momentum.

There are several obvious reasons. The first is the growing popularity of non-union charter schools in Milwaukee. In 2010-11, there were 2,471 MPS students attending non-union charters, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That number shot up 75 percent, to 4,326 students, in 2011-12. District officials expect another increase of about 500 students next year.

Non-union charters authorized by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee or the city attracted another 6,400 students in 2011-12.

The second reason is monetary. MPS receives $9,799 in state aid and local property tax revenue for each student, but only passes on $7,775 per student to its non-union charter schools. That means the district saves more than $2,000 for every student who attends one of the schools.

If 4,800 students attend the non-union charters in 2013-14, the district would be in line to keep about $9.6 million.

“For MPS, which has more than its share of money problems, this is obviously a smart financial decision,” wrote Michael Ford, research director for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, in a recent editorial in the Journal Sentinel. “It is a prominent reason MPS is expanding nonunion charter schools.”

Ford believes the district should continue to expand the number of non-union charters for several reasons.

“It is a way for MPS to puts its surplus buildings to use,” Ford wrote. “The district currently has 21 such buildings it can use as carrots to attract existing schools and outside school operators to the system.”

Ford also likes the academic accountability of charter schools in general, whether they are union or non-union. MPS usually grants its charters five-year contracts, and the schools can be closed if they don’t meet academic goals and expectations.

“Every Milwaukee parent should applaud this accountability,” Ford wrote.

Wisconsin students and families may finally have more access to independent, non-union charter schools – EAGnews.org :: Education Research, Reporting, Analysis and Commentary.

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