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

Report Analyzes MPS' Charter School Funding Process

Rachel Morello
Student cheerleaders at a pep rally at Milwaukee College Prep's Lloyd Street campus in 2016. Milwaukee College Prep is one of the non-instrumentality charter schools whose funding structure is examined in the Wisconsin Policy Forum report.

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) face fierce competition for students from private voucher schools, suburban schools and of course, charter schools. The question of whether MPS should expand its own portfolio of charter schools can be controversial. 

On the other side, charter schools that contract with MPS sometimes disagree with the way the district allocates money.  

Wisconsin Policy Forum researcher Anne Chapman says the debate is sometimes muddled by misunderstandings. Chapman is the lead author on a new Policy Forum report that digs into charter school funding. 

The report focuses on non-instrumentality charter (NIC) schools. Those are schools that are authorized by MPS but operate mostly independently, with their own governance structure and curriculum. They are still public schools and ultimately report to the MPS school board.

The NIC schools' per-pupil funding is funneled through MPS. MPS receives $10,572 per student from the state, passing $8,393 per student to NIC schools. That is the same amount that independent charter schools receive directly from the state. 

Some of the controversy is focused on the money MPS keeps for each student. Chapman says MPS' argument is that the money goes to district-wide costs that benefit all schools, like programming and administration. But some charter schools argue they don't benefit from those services. 

There is also debate about whether MPS is hurting itself when it contracts with charter schools, because it means control over a much smaller portion of per-student funding.

"It depends on one's perspective how much they think MPS is benefitting from having these charter schools in its portfolio," Chapman said. "If this is a good idea for the charter schools, to what extent it's beneficial for them to be part of MPS, and if you think charter schools are helping MPS stabilize its enrollment, it's hard to prove one way or the other. Those are the three areas where it depends on your perspective."

Chapman has a few suggestions that could dispel some of the controversy. She came up with the recommendations by analyzing how other states fund charter schools.

She says Wisconsin could guarantee a minimum level of funding for a student no matter what school they went to. And Chapman says MPS could help itself by being transparent about the specifics of how that roughly $2,000 per charter student is spent on district-wide costs.

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Emily is WUWM's educational reporter.
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