More and more Wisconsin school districts are experimenting with charter schools. Some 231 are in operation. Most have a specialty focus and are exempted from certain state regulations to facilitate new approaches to learning.
Appleton, for example, has 14 charter schools for its 15,000 students. These schools focus on Montessori learning, environmentalism, gifted education, the construction industry, arts immersion and alternative programs, among others.
Madison with its almost 25,000 students has held back, authorizing just two charters, the bilingual Nuestro Mundo on the east side, and the south side's Wright Middle School, which despite its charter designation offers a program similar to Madison's other middle schools.
The two Madison school board candidates -- is running unopposed for Seat 7 -- were relatively vague when we asked them about charter schools this week. Perhaps an inquiring voter will pin them down at an upcoming forum.
The Daily Page: Charter schools are hailed for offering the sort of educational variety and specialty instruction that some parents and students want, while critics worry that their programs are untested and divert resources that would otherwise benefit the majority of students.
Do you support the Madison school board's cautious approach to authorizing new charter schools, believe that the board should be even more cautious, or feel that the board should be more willing to open new charter schools?
I am a fan of neighborhood schools. I am not disposed toward changes in the way education is offered that would undercut the vitality of our neighborhood schools. So I may be more inclined than others toward requiring a more persuasive case in favor of a particular charter school.
I do recognize that there is a role for charter schools. They can be a vehicle for delivering education with a particular focus that is unavailable in our regular schools. The Spanish immersion experience offered by Nuestro Mundo certainly seems valuable and worthwhile. I hear good things about Wright Middle School, though its focus is less clear to me.
I expect that worthwhile proposals for additional charter schools in Madison could be developed. To my mind, support for any particular charter school proposal would turn upon how compelling a case is presented for the particular focus that the charter schools is designed to offer.
For me, that focus should offer distinct and significant educational benefits for an identifiable group of students that are unavailable in our neighborhood schools. I look forward to considering charter school proposals with that approach in mind.
I am open to all options that will help our students learn, particularly those who are struggling or who are not being engaged.
The recent discussion by the Performance and Achievement Committee was a very useful reminder of the many ways the district can diversify school organization and programs offered in order to enhance engagement and achievement.
The committee has been considering many things, including magnet schools, embedded programs, "strands," alternative programs and working on ways evaluate proposals for all.
This approach recognizes that none of these categories of "educational options" is in itself good or bad. "Choice" isn't a fix for anything if the choices being created and funded aren't good choices.
This isn't caution; it is common sense. The board is responsible for using the district's resources in a manner that best serves all children. I take that seriously. All practices and proposals need to be scrutinized for learning, equity, costs and more. This includes those that seek to expand choices.
Unfortunately, we are a district in financial crisis and this reality may keep us from being as innovative as we would like to be in the near future. In an ideal world, the Madison district would and should be exploring new ways of reaching all of our students.
Fortunately, we are also a district that is doing very well preparing the vast majority of our students. We always need to do better and do well for more students, but we are not a district in an educational crisis.
So there you are having a beer (okay, a soy latte if you prefer) with new school Supt. Daniel Nerad after his first board meeting, and he asks you: "So Marj and Ed, what advise do you have for me in running this place?"
"I'm going to be pulled in 12 different directions every day of the week. What should I stay focused on no matter what? How can I best provide leadership when just about every issue is so passionately contested? And above all, Ed and Marj, what should I avoid doing?"
You then lean over and say....
There is a photograph on my web site ( Ed Hughes
Dan, our goal should be to keep every Madison family invested in our public schools. So substantively, the schools need to be as good as we say they are -- and good for all our students. Perception-wise, people have to believe that the schools are as good as we say.
To be credible, we need to be candid and open in talking about school issues and always respect the intelligence and good will of our listeners.
We need to fight the perception that our schools can be unsafe and chaotic. This is a tough issue to deal with, because -- face it -- for some parents talk about safety is code for discomfort with a diverse student population. But safety can be a genuine concern that we have to stay on top of. We should keep striving to make discipline in the schools consistent, firm and fair.
We should always be trying to step up academic rigor. Deep down, every kid wants to be pushed. We need to encourage all our students, particularly those who don't start out with high expectations, to take the most challenging classes appropriate to their skill level and to do the work those classes require.
We should take every opportunity to celebrate our schools and particularly our classroom teachers. They're the lifeblood of our academic endeavor.
We should forge stronger ties to Madison's business community. Business and community leaders know the quality of our schools is key to economic development and stand ready to help if they're asked.
We need to be out in the community more, but you know that.
Here's a tip: Try to look like you're enjoying yourself. You should be -- you've got one of the greatest jobs around.
What to avoid? How about this: Just this once don't propose cutting elementary strings.
Recount a moment -- large or small -- where a teacher did something that changed the life of one of your children.
"Gosh, I'll never amount to anything," the little boy muttered in discouragement as he struggled with his math assignment. Just then his teacher came up, patted him on the back and in a comforting voice... Ahh, enough. I'm making this up.
I've got nothing here. My kids have had terrific teachers who have helped them in big ways and small, but any single life-changing events have escaped my notice.
I did poll my kids on this question. Their responses amounted to "You're the candidate, work up your own material." They're right.
In any event, if my daughter who's still in school had a heartwarming anecdote about a life-changing teacher, she ought to hold it in reserve for a college admission essay rather than let me squander it here. (The calculus -- or at least my calculus -- might be different if I had an opponent.)
My family came to Madison in 1969. We had lived on both the east and west coasts, but when the time came for us to settle down, we knew exactly where we wanted to raise and educate our children. Madison schools played a major role in our decision to come here and we have never regretted it.
My husband and I will always be grateful to almost all of the teachers at Leopold, Cherokee and West for the profound effect they had on our children. From academics to sports, from clubs to preparations for citizenship, from humor to commitment, respect and humaneness, Madison school teachers invariably and unselfishly gave of themselves.
These are fond memories and a superb education that will last Barbara and Jon a lifetime.