Milwaukee, State Battle Over Charter Schools

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Milwaukee is on its way to becoming the site of yet another nationally watched school choice tussle. But this time the issue is not private school vouchers; it's charter schools.

The city has been the scene of legal battles over a pioneering, state-financed voucher program--the target of a lawsuit that is now on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Now the city-sponsored charter schools, which were approved last summer, may be in for a court fight of their own.

While other cities have formed partnerships with districts to set up charters, Milwaukee is thought to be the first municipality to sponsor charter schools on its own. Generally, charter schools are public schools that are publicly funded and operate free from many rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability for student results. Typically, charter sponsors include local districts and state school boards, as well as some colleges and universities.

In Milwaukee, the city and the state education department have butted heads over competing interpretations of how the new city charter schools fit into a complex array of state and federal charter school and special education laws. At issue is who is responsible for providing what level of services to students with special needs and who must pay the tab.

Federal special education law requires that an entity known as a local education agency, or LEA, be designated to meet program and civil rights obligations.

City officials say the LEA for its charters is the Milwaukee public school district; the state disagrees.

"The city's position is akin to saying Milwaukee has to go into a neighboring district and do its job for them," said Sheila C. Ellefson, an assistant legal counsel for the Wisconsin education department. "We see no authority to pin this obligation on MPS."

State Superintendent John T. Benson argues that the city and the autonomous charter schools it sponsored are shirking the responsibility public schools have for special education.

Interpretations Collide

The city last summer approved four charter schools, all of which were private schools operating within the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. That program provides state vouchers to poor children that allow them to attend private schools in the city.

But the state agency has refused to give the city's charter schools the $6,100 per student that other Wisconsin charter schools receive. Instead, the state is continuing to pay them $4,950 per eligible student under the voucher program because the state says the schools are not complying with disability laws as public schools.

Students with disabilities in private schools are not entitled to the same level of special education services as they are in public schools under federal law.

The city's Common Council has voted to file a lawsuit against the state agency if the two sides cannot agree; as of late last week, the council had not yet filed suit.

Throughout Wisconsin, charter schools are sponsored by local school districts; typically, the districts function as the special education LEA.

Milwaukee officials say the city-sponsored charter schools are a new animal--neither wholly public nor private. But, they say, it is still the district that fits the definition of an LEA--a function it serves for students in the private-school-choice program and other students in private schools.

"These [charters] are a hybrid. They get public funding and comply with certain public requirements and have a contract with a public entity. But they're private in other aspects," said Susan D. Bickert, an assistant city attorney. "The way we look at it, the city contracted with private schools. This is a novel issue."

John W. Matthews, the chief of staff for Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, said the governor did not intend for the city charters to be treated as if they were districts for overseeing and providing special education.

The Republican governor included the provision granting the city of Milwaukee the authority to create charter schools in last year's state budget bill. That authority already is being challenged in state court on another front by the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association; a hearing is expected early next year.

'Too Uncertain'

The city and the state earlier this fall asked the U.S. Department of Education for guidance, which came Oct. 8 in the form of a nonbinding letter from Marshall S. Smith, the department's acting deputy secretary. The city charter schools must meet their obligations as public schools, the department said, adding that ideally the issue should be resolved within Wisconsin.

Gerald N. Tirozzi, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said last week that the department was "a long way" from cutting off any federal aid to the city or state. Mr. Tirozzi noted that while Milwaukee is somewhat unusual in its role with charter schools, the department has received other questions about charter schools and special education. The agency plans to issue further guidance in the next year.

But the uncertainty proved too much for Bruce Guadalupe Community School, which serves roughly 500 students in grades K-8 in a predominantly Hispanic Milwaukee neighborhood. Although it received city approval for a charter, the school decided not to use it this year, said Walter Sava, the school's director.

"All these questions were coming up; it was just too uncertain for us," he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 8, Page 3

Published in Print: October 21, 1998, as Milwaukee, State Battle Over Charter Schools
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Charter School Research provides a comprehensive catalog of charter school-related materials on the Internet and "to cross as many boundaries as possible while enabling inquiry, communication, critique, and justifiable experimentation." Hosted by AskERIC.
  •'s issue of the week for Sept. 7 was "Charter Schools."
  • Read the final report of the "Charter Schools in Action Project," from the Hudson Institute, 1997.
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