District Charter School Change a Needless Distraction

By MIKE FORD | December 18, 2013

There is nothing universal about a charter school.  Here in Wisconsin, the diversity of charter school offerings matches the diversity of our state.  We have:  

  • 21 independently authorized non-district charter schools; 
  • 27 non-instrumentality charter schools authorized by school districts but not employing school district staff; and,
  • 190 district-staffed and -authorized instrumentality charter schools.

This last group of schools is coming under fire from the Wisconsin legislature. Assembly Bill 549, if passed as is, will eliminate district-authorized instrumentality charter schools.  The schools themselves will still exist, only they will now be called magnet schools. 

Supporters of the provision do bring up a fair question: If a school is authorized by a school district, staffed by district employees, and funded like a traditional public school, is it really any different than a traditional public school?  Well, I argue, yes.

Currently 27,629 students attend these schools.  The largest among them are popular virtual schools operated by the Appleton, Waukesha, and Northern Ozaukee school districts.  There are schools for at-risk and gifted students.  There are Montessori schools, schools with environmental curriculums and project based learning.  Many of these schools are teacher-led.       

When Wisconsin’s charter school law first passed in 1993 the goal was to spur innovation in public education.  If you look at the numbers, much of the innovation has occurred via district-authorized instrumentality schools.  I fail to see the problem in that. 

The attempt to recast one type of charter schools as magnet schools also needlessly distracts from the other provisions in AB 549.  The most substantive change in the bill is the expansion of charter authorizing authority to two-year and four-year University of Wisconsin campuses.  The current University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee chartering effort shows the potential promise of this change (though the funding still needs to be addressed).

The inclusion of the elimination of instrumentality charter schools in the bill could thwart, yet again, the expansion of independent charter authorization in Wisconsin. 

Plainly, I do not understand the point of eliminating instrumentality charter schools, even if it is just semantics.  Are policy-makers deciding that education innovation can and should only happen outside of a school district?  That democratically elected school board members are not capable of overseeing charter schools that parents want and students need?  Or, that school district employees, even in teacher-led charter schools, are not the right people to push innovation in public schools?  If that it is what policy-makers think, I and a whole lot of Wisconsinites, and of course the parents of those 27,629 students, disagree.

Intentional or not, the bill as written unnecessarily pokes a stick in the eye of Wisconsin school districts.  It is counterproductive to force school districts to rebrand a popular district-option while the state, at the same time, expands the competitive atmosphere of K-12 education.

To put it another way, charter expansion and the recasting of instrumentality charter schools are separate issues, combining them only further complicates the already heated debate over the future of public education in Wisconsin.