There is a lot of talk in Milwaukee and around the nation about the merits of choice, charter and traditional public schools. Below is a quick primer:
Public: Traditional public schools range from magnet schools with selective admission policies such as King, Riverside, Reagan and Golda Meir, to neighborhood schools that serve all students. Average cost to the taxpayer per student is about $14,000.
Charter: Public schools that are privately operated. They are tuition-free, non-sectarian and are held accountable to state and federal academic standards. State reimbursement is about $8,000 per student. This structure provides a great degree of autonomy in terms of choosing curriculum, selecting staff and allocating budget in return for a high degree of accountability. The charter must be renewed every 5 years based on review of performance criteria.
Choice: Private schools (religious or non-sectarian) that receive public funding (vouchers) for low-income students. A voucher is worth about $6,400 per student. It provides a high degree of autonomy with limited accountability.
Although these organizational structures differ, we agree with Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education, who said that, “a student who walks through the school door doesn’t think about whether the school is a private school, a charter school or a traditional public school. All the student thinks about is whether it is a good school.”
Milwaukee College Prep is a free, public charter school network with four campuses in the central city that every child in Milwaukee is eligible to attend. There is no pre-screening of applicants for academic and social performance, or special educational issues.
If the number of applications exceeds the number of seats available, a random drawing will be held to fill the available seats. Siblings of currently enrolled students will be given preference. Each applicant will be assigned a number, and then the numbers will be drawn to determine placement order, beginning with K4. If an applicant with older siblings is drawn, the older siblings will be immediately placed in their respective grade(s) as room permits. Those children who are not picked via lottery will be put on a waitlist in the order their names were pulled.
As the map below indicates, our scholars represent virtually every zip code within the city of Milwaukee, pulling primarily from Milwaukee’s poorest zip codes indicated by the high density orange clusters. 98% are African-American and 83% are economically-disadvantaged.
Our parents or guardians must return a very simple enrollment form to us prior to the lottery. So while there has to be some effort and commitment exhibited on the part of the prospective MCP parent or guardian, as with other traditional public schools no more than the completion of a simple form is required. Once enrolled, they are our scholars. We do not believe in expelling our scholars and go to extraordinary measures to keep them with us. In effect, these are the same children that populate schools around Milwaukee. We do not believe our results are skewed based on who we accept: rather, they are a result of an absolute commitment to, and belief in, every child who enrolls with us.
We believe that the families who have enrolled their children with us are looking for high-quality education options. Providing families with more good options raises the bar for all schools and all scholars. At the same time, we recognize that we can’t reach every child, which is why over the past two years, we have welcomed more than 2,000 educators and administrators, primarily from traditional public schools, through our doors to share best practices and provide mentorship.
In addition, while we are not a traditional public school, the scholars from our campuses are chartered by Milwaukee Public Schools, and are included in MPS’s rolls. MPS receives state funding for each of these MCP scholars and then provides us with roughly 80% of this funding. So MPS loses neither market share nor money.
There are some “bad” charter schools…and choice schools and private schools and public schools. We believe in great schools, which is what we intend for each of our campuses. That said, most of the “bad” school press is not referring to charter schools. Christian D’Andrea, a MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst found that “data from the 2012-2013 school year shows that Milwaukee’s independent charter schools (like MCP) were the city’s most effective schools when it came to important metrics like student growth and closing achievement gaps.” In addition, all charter schools operate on a contract with their authorizer (either MPS, UWM or the Common Council in Milwaukee). Charter school contracts must be renewed every 5 years and “bad” schools are typically not renewed.
Wisconsin has one of the largest funding gaps between traditional public and public charter schools in the nation. The state and local funding accounts for roughly $13,000 per traditional public school student and just over $8,000 for every charter school student. In fact, last year was the first in six years that charter schools received any increase in funding. To make up just a portion of this gap, we must raise roughly $650 per scholar. And yet, as we grow, Milwaukee College Prep has demonstrated the ability to take advantage of economies of scale without compromising its mission.
Even with skyrocketing benefit costs, increasing salaries by about 2% each year and investing heavily in technology and new curriculum, Milwaukee College Prep has continued to lower the total cost of educating each scholar as it has expanded. Despite growth, our Annual Fund has remained static at $1.25m the last two years.
Charter schools also receive no funding for facilities, which is why we have held two capital campaigns in the past 5 years. Thanks to the generosity of many, we reached our goals of $5 million to purchase the Northside YMCA, in which Lola Rowe North campus is situated, on the heels of a $9 million campaign to purchase and renovate our 38th Street and Lloyd Street Campuses two years ago. These capital contributions allow us to devote our annual operating dollars to attracting, supporting, rewarding and retaining the very best teachers possible.
Our teachers are absolutely mission-driven. For them, urban education is not just a job; it is a purpose. They have chosen to teach in a challenging environment because of their whole-hearted belief that every child can succeed. Over our 19 years, we have become a magnet for the very best master teachers who share this belief. MCP then provides them with an environment in which great teaching can thrive and we support and challenge them to be their best.
While academic rigor is indisputable, the love that our teachers and administrators have for these scholars is palpable. Our scholars know that they can accomplish great things because they have a team of people who believe in them and will provide them with the knowledge and character to flourish. That said, the expectations we have for each of them are high. We sweat the small stuff. Uniforms are worn with pride, scholars speak in complete sentences, there is no “opting out” of class participation, every child is welcomed at the threshold of every classroom they enter, and Life’s Work (homework) is completed and signed by parents daily. We sweat the small stuff so that nothing interferes with their learning.
Our strategic plan calls for 5 schools, at which point we will reevaluate the need and our ability to best meet that need without compromising our mission.
We graduate 200 8th graders every year. While we have successfully placed our “seniors” in high performing high schools around the city, state and country, it is difficult to find that many seats in the limited number of high performing schools in our city, particularly free public high schools. We are hopeful that more public high schools, like Carmen North, will open in coming years. Yet, we have not closed the door to the idea. If we don’t see growth and more opportunity for our graduating scholars, we will consider opening a high school as our 5th campus.
In order to ensure that more students walk through the threshold of their school confident that is a great school, Milwaukee College Prep collaborates with Schools That Can Milwaukee, Teach for America, Center for Urban Teacher, and many others to improve educational outcomes for all children. Milwaukee College Prep is committed to sharing best practices with schools, no matter the organizational structure. To that end, we have hosted more than 2,000 educators and administrators from around Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the nation. We believe that our growth, together with a commitment to sharing best practices, is the best possible way for us to help change the paradigm in Milwaukee’s urban education landscape.