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

Controversy Shadows MPS Decision On Carmen Charter School Contract

Emily Files
A science teacher works with sixth graders at Carmen Northwest Middle/High School. Carmen's charter contract is up for renewal with the Milwaukee School Board.

Should the Milwaukee School District embrace or distance itself from charter schools? That is the larger question looming over the MPS board as it weighs whether to renew its contract and building leases with the Carmen Schools of Science and Technology charter network.

Carmen’s 1,700 students have better overall test results than the district average. Still, advocates for Milwaukee’s traditional public schools are raising concerns.

Carmen’s four schools are MPS non-instrumentality charters. That means the schools are publicly funded, with some of the money going to MPS. But they’re privately operated, staffed by non-district employees, and free to set their own their rules and curriculum.

The Carmen network has contracted with MPS since its original high school on the south side was founded a dozen years ago. But tensions have grown since Carmen opened a new school in a shared building with Pulaski High School. One of Carmen's schools also shares space with ALBA Elementary. 

Staff members from those two schools brought their concerns to a school board committee. Pulaski teacher David Eppelsheimer says it is unfair for students in the same building to follow different rules.

“Pulaski High School students enter the school building at 7:30 a.m. through a weapons scan,” he said. “At 7:45, it is very clear that Carmen students are not subject to any scan whatsoever … if we have one school in the building that scans, everybody should scan.”

School board members also have concerns about the performance of Carmen’s middle/high school on the northwest side. It received a failing grade on its most recent state report card.

Carmen founder and CEO Patricia Hoben says the low score is largely due to one round of bad test results in the middle school.

“I will be honest, at Northwest it is a bumpy ride. It hasn’t been easy,” Hoben said. “We’re working in a different demographic community. We have white leaders leading black children and that’s a challenge. It’s a challenge across our city and it’s a challenge that we own.”

READ: Same Race Teachers: MPS Students & Teachers Weigh In

Hoben says the middle school culture has improved this year and she expects scores to go up.

Carmen has its defenders, like school board member Wendell Harris, who points out Carmen Northwest is still doing better than many traditional public high schools.

“Just look at the data and let’s go from there,” Harris said. “Because the children are getting a better deal.”

And Carmen has its detractors, like Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Amy Mizialko. She and other critics say charters drain money and students from traditional public schools.

“Stop giving our schools away,” Mizialko told the school board.  

"Stop giving our schools away," Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Amy Mizialko said.

Charter schools are controversial in Milwaukee. It’s a tough issue for MPS, where enrollment in traditional schools is declining and enrollment in charter schools is growing. Some of the top-performing schools in Milwaukee by state report card standards are non-instrumentality charters.

At a recent work session, school board members expressed their skepticism toward charter schools. Director Larry Miller brought up a common complaint — that charters don’t take their fair share of special needs students.

“I call it the new segregation,” Miller said. “I think it’s a new segregation of schools across the country. [Charter schools don’t] serve all students.”

School board member Annie Woodward went further, asking if MPS could stop contracting with charter schools altogether.

At the end of that meeting, there was no clear consensus around the Milwaukee School District’s overall strategy for charters. That leaves charter school leaders like Carmen’s Patricia Hoben feeling uncertain.

“The saddest thing for me is that I feel that relationship [between Carmen and MPS] that was strong up until two or three years ago is being chipped away,” Hoben said. “And it’s impacting public perception. But most of all it’s impacting kids.”

But Hoben says she still hopes to continue chartering with MPS. She sent a lengthy memo to administrators this week offering resolutions to issues raised by Pulaski and ALBA and details about Carmen Northwest's drop in performance.

The school board is set to decide on Carmen’s contract and building leases Thursday night. You can view the documents here

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Emily does education reporting as well as general news editing at WUWM.
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