"Equity" and Honesty in the MPS/Charter Debate

For anyone following education politics in Milwaukee recently, the debate over the proposed (now approved) co-location of Carmen and Pulaski high schools is inescapable. For opponents of the plan, this story has now become one of betrayal as well. On Thursday, Wendell Harris cast the deciding vote as the MPS board voted to approve the plan. This was surprising for a variety of reasons, most notably that Harris had campaigned on promises of blocking the expansion of any non-instrumentality charters under the chartering authority of the MPS board. 

Although the debate seems now to be closed, I think it is worth considering the language that has been used throughout - particularly by opponents of the plan. Some of the first opposition I saw came in the form of a petition against the plan, circulated at the end of September in the midst of the school board's community meetings addressing the topic. That petition described Carmen as a private charter school operated outside the democratically elected school board - a misleading statement on several counts. By the time the school board committee met - and ultimately declined to vote on the topic - the rhetoric had begun to include not only the word "takeover" (a misleading insinuation that the plan was part of the OSPP), but the phrase "separate but equal" and claims from opponents that the partnership would "pit brown students against black students." 

Not surprisingly, opponents of the plan, lead by the the MTEA with support from Wisconsin Jobs Now, the Milwaukee County ATU, and others, used standard anti-charter rhetoric in their arguments against the partnership. In particular, opponents leaned heavily on the charge that Carmen, like other charter schools, teaches a disproportionately lower number of students with disabilities, shifting the responsibility of educating students with disabilities back onto MPS.  As the argument goes, this then adds to the demands placed on teachers and further exacerbates gaps in achievement between MPS and charter schools, providing future justifications for charter expansions and accelerating the for-profit privatization of public schools. Kenzo Shibata described this process taking place in Chicago Public Schools as "Disaster Capitalism, Chicago Style." There is certainly merit to this analysis; my issue lies with the particular language parroted over and over in the Milwaukee charter debates around the notion of equity. 

For Milwaukee charter opponents, MPS is nothing less than the great equalizer; the sole provider of equitable education that meets the needs of all students. Yet a distinction is rarely drawn between services offered by the district and services offered by individual schools within that district. Back in 2009, this was an issue that MPS addressed head on, acknowledging disparities in the distribution of students with disabilities within Milwaukee Public Schools.  

A review of information readily available in 2013-2014 school report cards from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reveals that these gaps persist, even if they have begun to close in some areas. Riverside University High School, a high-performing East Side school to which students are admitted on the basis of a competitive application process, served 16.8% students with disabilities, and while only 9.5% of that group had graduated in 4 years, the 6-year graduation rate for the same cohort was 82.7%.  Compare those numbers to North Division High School, a low performing school on the North Side serving 32.2% students with disabilities, with a 6-year graduation rate for those students sitting at only 46.3%.

Similarly, take King International High School, an IB school on the North Side. King serves 14.3% students with disabilities, with a 6-year graduation rate for those students of 97.7%. Compare those numbers to South Division, a school serving 27.3% students with disabilities. At South Division, students with disabilities had a 6-year graduation rate of 36.2%. A more complete analysis could certainly be done, but the gaps do seem to persist. 

[To be fair, these disparities are worse at Carmen's flagship campus, where only 3.7% of students have disabilities. Carmen Northwest, on the other hand, is in line with other specialty schools in MPS at 13.7% students with disabilities. Carmen hasn't been operating long enough for comparative data on 6-year graduation rates for students with disabilities, though Alan Borsuk noted in his earlier analysis of the Carmen/Pulaski plan that Carmen did not show signs of the same 9th-12th grade retention problems seen in many charter and choice high schools in Milwaukee.] 

The disparities within MPS, along with the competitive application process that keeps many students out of MPS' highest performing middle and high schools, are important to consider when weighing the benefits of a Pulaski/Carmen partnership, particularly in light of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program Carmen has promised. Opponents were quick to respond to Carmen's plans for implementing an IB program within the Pulaski location with calls for Pulaski to simply create its own IB program. Had this been the solution, what safeguards would be in place to ensure that students had an equal shot at accessing that program? Is it accurate to describe the competitive application process as a democratic process? Couldn't an IB program implemented by Carmen - who must, as a public school, accept all students who apply on a first come, first served basis - in fact be the more democratic option for those students moving forward? 

The MPS disparities are also important to consider in light of the "separate but equal" language used by opponents. Consider for a moment the fact that Milwaukee's specialty and magnet schools - IB programs, arts programs, Montessori programs; in many cases, MPS' highest performing schools - were originally created as an alternative to forced integration. The explicit aim of these programs was to genuinely diversify the MPS student body (rather than sidestep the issue as intact busing had done), without the forced busing that had been so disastrous in Boston and elsewhere. Given the disparities that persist in the services provided by many such specialty programs to students with disabilities, it doesn't seem unfair to point out that the disparities in educational opportunities - especially for students with disabilities - have in some cases been exacerbated by those very programs originally meant to draw in suburban families. In other words, the sort of programs designed to combat white flight and separate and unequal schooling, have in some cases themselves contributed to separate and unequal educational opportunities within MPS. If educational opportunities in Milwaukee are still separate and unequal (and it should be plainly clear that they are), charter schools are hardly the only culprit, and MPS is hardly immune.