Zielinski’s charter school proposal: smart policy, smart politics or both?

Let’s get all the disclaimers out of the way now: I live in the 14th aldermanic district, currently represented by Ald. Tony Zielinski and have for more than a decade. He’s up for reelection next year, and at this moment, his only announced opponent is former Milwaukee Public Schools board member Meagan Holman. In the past, I have written about, endorsed, voted for and given money to both of them.

I’m also a teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools, so for me, the most important topic of any campaign, even for alderman, is education.

You can imagine, then, that Zielinski’s surprise proposal last week, which would stop the City of Milwaukee from opening new charter schools, was of interest to me.

The city, like the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Area Technical College, is permitted to authorize charter schools, public schools that operate in the city but outside of the umbrella of MPS. MPS can also authorize charters, run and staffed by either district employees or non-MPS operators and staff. MATC has opted not to exercise its authority, but UWM and the city together authorize about two dozen schools in Milwaukee.

As I write, the legislative language for Zielinski’s proposal isn’t available, but a press release about the plan said it would honor contracts with existing city charters while preventing the Common Council from authorizing any new ones. I like this plan.

The timing seems suspicious, though: Zielinski announced it less than a week after a terrible proposal from Republicans Dale Kooyenga and Alberta Darling was released, a proposal that would steal schools from MPS and give them to charter or voucher school operators.

It’s also been less than a month since Holman announced her candidacy, and Holman toes a very strict line on charter schools. “Anyone who knows anything about the issues will tell you that MPS should be the only authorizer” of charter schools, she told me.

Zielinski says neither of those things affected the timing of this proposal. “I’ve been thinking about this proposal for a long time,” Zielinski said in an interview last week. “I don’t think the city should be in the chartering business, taking money away from MPS.”

He says he’s held that belief for years.

“Philosophically, I’ve always made it clear I’m opposed to the city of Milwaukee charter system,” he said.

This does not completely square with his record, though, which includes many Common Council votes to authorize charter schools. For example, in November 2011, Zielinski voted to authorize the Rocketship charter school chain to open in Milwaukee.

Rocketship is perhaps the best example of what public school advocates fear in charter schools: Its schools are “blended” learning, meaning much of a student’s day is spent sitting at a computer rather than in hands-on, engaging activities with adults and other children. There’s little to be had of art, gym, music, recess or anything that isn’t reading and math prep. And there’s profit to be had for investors in the software companies providing the curriculum, profit paid for by tax dollars.

So I asked him about that vote for Rocketship.

“I can’t remember the circumstances at that time,” Zielinski said, adding that generally if it seemed like there was an “overwhelming majority” on the Common Council to support a school, he would usually vote with the majority. The Rocketship vote was, in fact, 14-1 in favor.

But Zielinski said he also opposed charters when they were controversial. He couldn’t name any in particular that he had opposed or supported, but said, “Charter schools pass because no one comes to testify against them. When groups organize with evidence against a school, it’s more difficult to approve.”

Rocketship was exactly such a case, though, and at the Common Council meeting, Ald. Nik Kovac moved to send the proposal back to committee to reconsider it, because the Rocketship model is so very controversial. Zielinski supported that motion, but it failed, 5-10. Ultimately, both Zielinski and Kovac voted to approve the school.

Again, Zielinski said he didn’t remember what the “particular set of dynamics” were with Rocketship. “Whenever there was contention, I voted no,” he said. “But if there was no chance to stop it, I went along.”

Holman, too, sometimes voted to approve outside charter agencies opening schools in Milwaukee under the banner of the public school system, though not staffed with MPS employees – that is, the teachers are not members of the MPS teachers union – even if they were placed into buildings MPS owns. She defended the practice by saying MPS’ charter authorization process is more rigorous than the city’s. Holman sat on the board committee that reviewed charter schools and voted to end charter contracts with a number of schools that didn’t meet performance targets.

“MPS is known,” she said, “for having the most strident process for chartering, and schools will venue shop.” Her implication is that schools that aren’t good enough to get authorized by MPS might go to the city instead.

Holman couldn’t name an example of that, but Terry Falk, who holds the citywide MPS school board seat, told me, “It’s well documented that charter organizations play one against the other.” He gave the example of Milwaukee College Prep, which has a charter school with UWM and a second with MPS. “The threat is always there,” he said, that if the school doesn’t get what it wants through one authorizer, they might take their students – and their funds – to the other.

Falk also mentioned a charter group called American Quality Schools, which approached the city and MPS for charters in 2011. The city approved the group to open an elementary school (that vote was 14-1, with Zielinski voting to authorize), but MPS declined the group’s request to open a high school, citing financial troubles the group faced in other states. Those troubles led AQS to request a one-year delay from the city and, ultimately, they never were able to open a school in Milwaukee.

Holman’s votes to authorize non-union charter schools have occasionally earned her the ire of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, the teachers union, and though it is too early for the union to endorse in a spring 2016 election, I’ve heard rumors that union leaders are asking members to support Zielinski over Holman.

This has Holman puzzled. “No matter what you can say about MPS charters,” she said, “none of them are Rocketship.”

MTEA has also heavily criticized the city for its charter schools, though. In January, they presented the city with reports on several of its worst charter schools – including schools Zielinski voted to approve. An analysis a few weeks later by Urban Milwaukee’s “Data Wonk” Bruce Thompson, a former MPS board member, showed that while the city chartered one of the highest-performing schools in the city, Downtown Montessori Academy, it also chartered some of the worst, according to state data, with proficiency scores in the low single digits for some of these schools.

Rocketship is too new to have scores from the state – it is just finishing its second year – but I find it notable that the Montessori school is doing so well, considering that the Montessori model is the exact opposite of the Rocketship model. Holman said the same thing and has a long history of supporting Montessori expansion in MPS through adding seats at the district’s existing schools and opening a new Montessori school in 2012. These expansions are not charter schools, but traditional public schools.

Whether the timing is coincidental or not, Zielinski is at this moment on the right side of history with this proposal to end the city’s support of new charter schools. On the one hand, anything that takes enrollment away from the public schools puts MPS in a more dangerous financial position. With the threat of more schools and students lost under the Kooyenga-Darling plan, MPS needs every student it can get.

On the other hand, this is also good for the students of Milwaukee. As Holman put it to me, “Fewer authorizers means more accountability in the marketplace.” With the city out of the chartering game, there’s less chance charter operators will venue shop. Plus, MPS’ stricter oversight of the city’s charter schools will help keep overall quality higher.

So Zielinski’s plan is definitely smart policy. If it works to absolve him of his votes to approve charters over the years in this campaign against strong public-school advocate Holman, then it’s also smart politics. Either way, I hope the rest of the Common Council does the right thing and votes to remove itself from the charter school business.

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