The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported earlier this week that more than 6 out of 10 eight graders in Milwaukee Public Schools score below or average on the most basic math proficiency tests. These results were based upon a national urban test, which showed that only Detroit's schools scored worse than Milwaukee at the eighth grade level. Poor results from MPS further underscore how Milwaukee residents view MPS. According to the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, only 35% of residents gave MPS a grade of "B" or higher. This is well below the national average, which is nearly 60%.
As displeased as we are with our public schools, we have the power of choice. If we've lost confidence in the MPS system, we may opt to send their kids to a private school, a charter school, a virtual school, or even a home school depending on our situation or the unique needs of our children.
What makes charter schools different than other public schools is that they are bound to a performance-based contract between the school and the state/school district. This means if they don't meet pre-established goals, they are shut down. This may sound like a drastic response, but charter schools are also given greater autonomy to control student-achievement outcomes. They are given the flexibility to be more innovative and adaptive with their school curriculum.
Parents with vouchers can send their children to the charter school of their choice without regard to previous limitations by their school districts. In this way, charter schools have become the answer to parents trapped in the inner-city who are routinely denied opportunities to give their kids the same or better education received in the suburbs.
In March of 2006, Pedro Colon voted against lifting the cap on vouchers for charter schools from 15,000 to 22,500. To clarify, a voucher is a publicly funded scholarship given to a student by the state. And a cap is a certain limit placed on the number of students eligible to apply for these vouchers. By voting against a bill which would have lifted the cap from 15,000 to 22,500 students, Colon essentially hindered the chances of more minority children (including Hispanics) that can qualify for school scholarships.
In 2001, the Center for Education Reform found that out of 65 research studies, 61 studies found that charter schools provided more innovative, accountable, and successful results. And as of September this year, the New York Times reported that charter school students performed better on state exams than students not in charter schools.
The Stanford University study showed that by the third grade, charter school students were 5.3 points ahead of non-charter school students in English. And in math, third grade charter school students were 5.8 points ahead of non-charter school students. Standford economist Caroline Hoxby said that the longer students stayed in a charter schools, the larger the achievement gap was between them and students not in charter schools.
If charter schools are showing such positive results, then why would Pedro Colon vote against expanding the scholarship program that opens up more opportunities for Hispanic children?
Even more problematic, in May of this year, Mr. Colon added a provision to the state budget that required some charter schools to provide a bilingual education program. Instead of immersing Spanish speaking students in English, bilingual programs teach classes in Spanish and English. According to Ramon Cruz, principle of the largest elementary school in Milwaukee (St. Anthony's), this puts off much needed English fluency for years.
Cruz also said that Colon's provision would require that St. Anthony's School replace 10-15% of the faculty since a bilingual program would require special licenses for teachers fluent in Spanish. And besides the fact that special-licensed teachers are hard to find, these charter schools would have to purchase "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on Spanish text books. This provision would be very costly to charter schools and quite possibly put many of them into bankruptcy - especially the smaller ones.
Was Mr. Colon looking out for the Hispanic community? Or did he try to harm charter schools by adding this provision? Even educators like Jesus Santos, who specialize in and promotes bilingual education, recognized that Colon's provision would cause real problems for smaller charter schools in Milwaukee.
Given Colon's history of voting against the expansion of charter schools, adding a provision into the state budget that would harm charter schools make some wonder just how good his intentions were. Charter schools are undoubtedly the best opportunity for Hispanics to receive a quality education. Mr. Colon should understand that lifting the cap on charter schools so more Hispanic children can get a quality education is being a true advocate of the Hispanic community.