MILWAUKEE, WIS. – Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Darienne Driver is doubling down on her support for making her school district the sole authorizer of charter schools in the city, an idea first suggested back in November.
“What happens is, people are so busy trying to figure out who they’re going to charter with, we’re not talking at all about how we’re going to improve student achievement,” Driver said during an an interview Wednesday at Marquette University Law School’s Eckstein Hall. “And so, at the public school system, we really should be the place where people can go to charter schools.”
Driver discussed a wide range of education issues with Mike Gousha as part of On the Issues, a series of interviews and lectures about policy issues open to the public.
Milwaukee Public Schools is one of three charter school authorizers in Milwaukee, along with the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee and the city of Milwaukee.
Driver said the advantage of MPS as the sole charter school authorizer is that it can offer, “special education teachers and support, social work support. We provide professional development for our charter schools if they choose.”
“Everybody talks about MPS’ results,” Driver said. “But if you look at all the other schools they’re not very different from where we are. And so, I feel a much more productive conversation would be, let’s talk about teaching and learning at all schools instead of worrying about who’s chartering with who has what building.”
The comments about buildings may have been a reference to the attempts by MPS, in the face of pressure from the state legislature, not to sell unused and vacant school properties to independent charter schools or voucher schools like the successful St. Marcus Lutheran School.
As for the difference in educational outcomes, two studies by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty have shown that independent charter schools do better at educating impoverished school children than MPS instrumentality charter schools, charter schools with staff hired by the chartering school district instead of the charter school itself.
CJ Szafir, vice president for Policy at WILL, described Driver’s remarks as, “strange, if not very concerning.”
“At the heart of the charter school model is competition,” Szafir said in a statement to Wisconsin Watchdog. “The best performing public schools in Milwaukee for low-income, minority students are charter schools authorized by UWM. Superintendent Driver seems to be advocating for eliminating that model.”
Czafir said MPS should focus more on improving instead of trying to eliminate competition from the city’s private school voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and independent charter schools. He also disagreed with Driver’s statement that other schools are not that different from MPS schools.
“Many of MPS’ best schools have selective admissions policies that charter and MPCP private schools are prohibited from having,” Szafir said. “Despite that, last year, charters and MPCP private schools significantly outperformed traditional MPS schools on the Forward exam and ACT, when students’ socio-economic status is factored in.”
Driver was also asked about Gov. Scott Walker’s budget, which does not include major changes for MPS despite threats from legislators following the failure of the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program last summer. The program would have allowed the creation of a turnaround school district, which would have taken over up to four failing schools from MPS. The program was blocked for the 2016-17 school year when the Opportunity Schools commissioner Demond Means resigned, citing lack of cooperation from MPS.
In MPS, 42 schools serving 24,447 students are ranked as “fails to meet expectations,” the lowest level on the state school report cards. However, because the report cards now take into account the socioeconomic background of the student population and growth in student achievement, the district was rated in October as “Meets Few Expectations,” blocking the OSPP for the 2017-18 school year as well.
Despite the changes to the state school report cards, Driver said the Legislature’s reluctance to make more changes was because “results change conversations.”
“What was really important was when October came and the state report card, and we were no longer in that category,” Driver said. “So we are a district that ‘meets few expectations,’ but yet we can’t stop until we’re exceeding or significantly exceeding expectations.”
“And so, I think part of it is, again, demonstrating that this is something we didn’t want but it was because we were able to make these changes in house,” Driver said.
James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.