Madison Mayor Paul Soglin wrote a thoughtful piece last week on the need for improvement in Madison Schools. Soglin proposes several logical steps such as increasing community engagement, childhood education, and efforts to address poverty. Unfortunately the Mayor dismisses charter schools out of hand, writing:
“We are not interested in the development of new charter schools.”
Considering the ugly battle over Madison Prep, Soglin’s reluctance may be a logical desire to avoid a divisive issue. Call it a hangover effect. But Soglin goes further in making his case against charter schools;
“I have come to three conclusions about charter schools. First, the national evidence is clear overall, charter schools do not perform as well as traditional public schools. Second where charter schools have shown improvement, generally they have not reached the level of success of Madison schools. Third, if our objective is to improve overall educational performance, we should try proven methods that elevate the entire district not just the students in charter schools.”
First, the evidence is far from clear that charter schools trail traditional public schools in performance. But that is not the point. Soglin’s position is based on the belief that charter schools should be judged as a homogeneous group. They shouldn’t.
The premise of the charter model is individual school accountability for performance. If a charter school proposal does not add value, it is not authorized. If a charter school does not produce results, it is closed. Granted this does not always work perfectly in practice, but it is a worthy ideal nonetheless.
Accordingly, no sane policy maker (or advocate) would argue that putting every Madison student in a charter school would magically increase overall district performance. However, well-planned charter schools seeking to serve underperforming students in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), like the failed Madison Prep, could add significant value precisely because of Soglin’s third point.
If the Mayor wants “proven methods that elevate the entire district,” charters may be his best option. Decades of failed attempts across the country make clear no single curriculum or intervention will work for every student in a district as diverse in its needs as Madison. In other words, there is no one best way to deliver K-12 education. Charters offer a model where schools can be independent, responsive to the localized needs of students and parents, and accountable for results. I suppose it is possible that MMSD could build such a system without using charters, but why not consider all options?