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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee College Prep Leaves MPS Amid Tense Relationship Between District And Charter Schools

Milwaukee College Prep
Emily Files
A masked student arrives at Milwaukee College Prep's North Avenue campus.

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is set to lose 2,000 students and at least $4 million next year, as charter school network Milwaukee College Prep (MCP) cuts ties with the district.

MPS has contracts with 15 independent charter schools, including the four MCP locations. The charter schools are independently-run but publicly-funded, and are accountable to the MPS Board.

MCP’s departure is one sign of growing tension between MPS and the charter schools under its umbrella.

On a windy day in late April, staff at Milwaukee College Prep’s North Avenue campus are greeting students as they get dropped off at three separate entrances for social distancing purposes.

“During COVID, our school day mirrors as much as possible as pre-pandemic,” says principal Kanika Burks. “When they come in, you’ll hear music in the hallways … they come in and enjoy breakfast and then start with morning routines.”

There are four schools in the Milwaukee College Prep charter network, including this one at North and Teutonia Ave.
Emily Files
There are four schools in the Milwaukee College Prep charter network, including this one at North and Teutonia Ave.

Burks has been principal here for four years. This is what she tells families of prospective students: “I tell them that it is a place that I am very passionate about and I love, and their children will be treated like the young geniuses that they are."

Milwaukee College Prep has four schools with about 2,000 students in grades K-8. The students are majority Black and low-income. All four schools exceed expectations on state report cards.

Charter schools in Milwaukee can get a contract to operate through three public institutions: MPS, UWM or the city of Milwaukee. Students probably won’t notice any changes, but next year, MCP is moving its charter from MPS to UW-Milwaukee.

>> Report Analyzes MPS's Charter School Funding Process

“When we first went with MPS [10 years ago,] the attraction was — I mean, they were very aggressive in recruiting us to the district,” says MCP CEO Robb Rauh. “And they had some empty school buildings, and we were looking to expand at that time.”

But Rauh says MPS’s attitude toward charters has changed. In 2019, five teachers’ union-backed candidates were elected to the school board. All of them ran in opposition to charter schools — saying they siphoned students and money away from traditional public schools.

“Just in the last year or so, the district’s attitude toward charter schools like Milwaukee College Prep has certainly taken a turn,” Rauh says.

He thinks the attitude change was reflected in a financial dispute this school year.

MCP's charter contract includes incentive funding that is tied to the charter school closing gaps in student test scores. Rauh says MPS refused to give MCP the $1.7 million in incentive funding this year because spring 2020 standardized testing was cancelled amid the pandemic.

“No one in the entire state took the spring test,” Rauh says. “MPS didn’t take it. So it seemed pretty disingenuous that they would move to that as their final decision.”

MPS did not respond to questions from WUWM about the financial dispute.

Now, MCP is taking MPS to court on its way out the door, ending the 10-year partnership.

Rauh says he doesn’t understand MPS’s treatment of his schools.

“It’s sad. This is certainly not a decision that’s being made because MCP isn’t doing a good job servicing students,” Rauh says. “We’ve had strong results every year we’ve been chartered by the district. So it’s puzzling and doesn’t make logical sense.”

Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, says MCP’s departure will cause an about $4 million loss for MPS.

“Generally speaking, losing 2,000 students is not a good thing for the district,” he says. "That said, in a billion dollar budget, the loss of $4 million — that perspective has to be taken into account as well."

Henken says some argue that MPS is working against its own interests by contracting with independently-run charter schools, because the students might otherwise choose to attend traditional MPS schools.

“That’s the real big caveat here, is whether charter schools are a way of keeping children under the district umbrella who otherwise would not be under the umbrella,” Henken says. “Or instead whether they are providing another option that some would deem disadvantageous for the district as a whole.”

At least five members of the MPS Board have expressed skepticism or outright opposition to the concept of independent charter schools. In December and January, in an attempt to increase accountability of charter schools, the board upset three of its charter partners by granting them three-year contract renewals.

Milwaukee Excellence, Carmen, and La Causa all met performance standards outlined in their contracts and were recommended by a charter review team for five-year contract renewals.

The move blindsided Milwaukee Excellence CEO Maurice Thomas.

“That was a shock for us,” says Thomas. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was hurt by what took place.”

Now the board is walking back its decision after prompting from outgoing member Tony Baez.

“We gave the Superintendent 'guidance' and that he needed to renegotiate contracts to all MPS instrumentality and non-instrumentality charters so that a 5, 3, 1 year approach is followed,” Baez said in an email to WUWM. “And that high performing charters receive 5 years when they outperformed the typical traditional MPS schools. It is, in my estimation, important to recognize their accomplishment, draw and emulate their successful strategies, and treat them with the respect they owe.”

Milwaukee Excellence plans to stick with MPS despite the drama. The charter school relies on MPS for facilities, but Thomas says it’s about more than that.

“I truly believe that if you want to make large systemic change, you have to be in the mix,” Thomas says. “And there are [some 70,000] students that are part of MPS, including our students here in Milwaukee Excellence. And so that connection allows me to have connections with 200 school leaders, 200 schools. And so I don’t see the work we do in a silo.”

But there is a question of whether other charter schools will leave MPS in the future because of the district’s frosty treatment. Patricia Hoben is founder and former leader of the Carmen charter network. She now leads educational nonprofit City Forward Collective.

“At this point, the future for charter schools under the MPS umbrella depends on whether the board wants to see its schools as a family of schools that provide the best possible options for families in the city, or a school system competing with schools under its own umbrella,” Hoben says.

WUWM reached out to current MPS Board members and administration for this story, but no one agreed to an interview. MPS also did not answer written questions.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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