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Milwaukee May Adopt Its Own Charter Plan

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The city of Milwaukee last week took its first steps toward establishing and overseeing charter schools, a move that many experts said was the first by a city government independent of the local school district.

While other cities have formed partnerships with districts to set up charters, Milwaukee is believed to be the first municipality that can sponsor them on its own.

Mayor John O. Norquist

"This is consistent with more and more power devolving to mayors or municipalities," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit organization that supports charter schools and private school choice. "Mayors are held accountable for education, yet most have no control over it."

Last week, a committee of the Milwaukee Common Council voted to approve policies the city would follow in granting and overseeing charters. The full 17-member council must approve the move and may vote on it this week.

Some council members say they'd like to see a few city-sponsored schools open in the fall.

Ms. Allen said Milwaukee's efforts illustrate how charter school sponsors are diversifying as the movement for the independent public schools gains momentum nationwide. Generally, charter sponsors include local districts and state school boards, as well as some colleges and universities.

Other cities may well follow Milwaukee's lead, Ms. Allen said, if states begin to allow such arrangements in their charter laws, as Wisconsin has.

Pressures for Change?

Nationwide, close to 800 charter schools are operating in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

Milwaukee has before it more than two dozen charter proposals, most of them from existing private schools seeking charter status. Under the Wisconsin charter law, schools receive about $6,100 per student enrolled.

Some of the schools that have applied for charter status participate in the controversial Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which provides state-funded vouchers worth about $4,400 each to some 1,500 poor children that allow them to attend secular private schools in the city.

Under a state budget adopted last year, the city, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Milwaukee Area Technical College were granted authority to set up charter schools.

The Milwaukee school district is also empowered to grant charters. But, since last year, the district has not done so, because of an injunction granted in a lawsuit brought by the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association against the state over changes in the charter law that affect only Milwaukee. Those changes include provisions that allow the conversion of private schools to charter status and that allow charters to be more independent of the district.

But even before the legal entanglements, some say the Milwaukee district had shown little interest in sponsoring charters. Only one such school is up and running.

"We think this effort from the city will create models that will work and put pressure on the existing system to change," said Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent and a proponent of school choice. He serves on a charter school task force established by the city council.

State Pressure

The 107,000-student district is already under the gun to meet certain performance goals set by the state or face a state takeover, under a bill the governor recently outlined. District spokeswoman Karen Salzbrenner said Superintendent Alan Brown is confident the system can meet the goals and is not troubled by the city's possible foray into charters--a move heartily supported by Democratic Mayor John O. Norquist.

But school board members who attended a hearing on the city's charter plan last week were clearly divided on the issue. And the Milwaukee affiliate of the National Education Association opposes the city's move, maintaining it would divert money from the district.

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Web Resources
  • Read "A Study of Charter Schools: First Year Report," from . the U.S. Department of Education. As part of a four year effort to examine the charter school movement, this May 1997 study looks at why charter schools are started, school and student characteristics, and state policies toward charter schools.
  • Read "Charter Schools in Action: A First Look," from the conservative Hudson Institute. Hudson launched the Charter Schools in Action project in the summer of 1995 to study problems in starting a charter school and solutions to such problems. Its research staff take a look back at the project.
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