Why Charter Schools?
Article below first published in Biztimes. Written by MAS CEO Anthony McHenry.
Public charter schools are a critical part of Milwaukee’s education ecosystem. Unique attributes of the charter school model unlock important opportunities to successfully serve students.
Here are three of the most significant ways charters are unique:
Public charter schools have autonomy and flexibility to respond to the changing needs and interests of students and families – without bureaucratic systems that can stall progress. Our world is changing rapidly. To prepare scholars for the jobs of tomorrow, we need flexibility and specialization within our schools. Charters have the autonomy to adjust curricula, seek specific partnerships and specialize in courses that better prepare scholars for the future. Also, children learn differently, which mean students, often in the same household need different types of schools.
Public charter schools may incentivize high-performing teachers and hold others accountable for unsatisfactory performance – both of which are difficult in traditional school districts. And unlike private schools, charter teachers are legally required to be licensed by the state. It is hard to conceive that the most important organizations for the future of our country (schools) shouldn’t have high standards for their most impactful positions (teachers), nor have the ability to hold them accountable for their ineffectiveness in serving our society’s most important possessions (children). I want every child’s teachers to be properly credentialed and held accountable for performance.
Public charter schools are the most accountable type of publicly funded school. Besides answering to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) like traditional public schools, charters must be authorized by a separate government entity. The school and its authorizer form an agreement which spells out performance targets the school will meet. If the school misses the mark, its authorizer can opt to not renew the contract and the school will close. This added accountability keeps schools in a continuous cycle of improvement. The results are appropriate: charters that don’t perform well are quickly moved to probationary status and/or are closed. Conversely, some Milwaukee schools in other sectors have been failing children for decades but remain in operation.
Like many public charter schools locally and nationally, Milwaukee Academy of Science (MAS) was created in response to the challenges encountered by traditional school districts in serving vulnerable populations, particularly in urban communities. Today, MAS is the largest single-site charter in the state, serving a population that is 96% economically disadvantaged, including a significant and increasing number of homeless students. We couldn’t do what we do without the unique advantages explained above.
The flexibility offered to charters allows MAS to do things like create, within a single year, engaging partnerships aimed at high-demand careers with some of our area’s largest employers, like Milwaukee Tool and Northwestern Mutual.
Being a charter truly allows MAS to seek equity in access to education by committing over $1.5 million dollars annually to city-wide school bussing. This ensures students get to school despite moving, for many, several times during a school year (often to avoid evictions).
Our autonomy as a charter school is allowing MAS to address a crisis-level shortage of licensed teachers plaguing schools nationwide. To keep high-quality teachers in a very competitive environment, MAS’s Teacher Leader Committee designed a system that allows multi-year incentivized contracts for high-performing teachers, while holding other teachers accountable for failing to meet expectations.
These kinds of strategies, along with the brilliance and resilience of our scholars and staff, helped us reach 100% graduation and post-secondary acceptance of our seniors for seven consecutive years. Equally impressive: a four-year-cohort graduation rate of 94%. That means that of all the scholars who entered 9th grade at MAS four years ago, 94% graduated within four years. For comparison: citywide, just 64.2% of black students graduate within four years.
Increasingly, corporate leaders are seeking a diverse and skilled labor force, and a vibrant and safe city for their employees. To meet these goals, corporations should prioritize supporting and partnering with schools – of any sector – which are high-performing, tuition-free and accept all students. State data show the schools which most often fit that definition are charter schools, especially when considering outcomes for low-income students.
Charters achieve these positive outcomes despite a sizeable and stagnant gap in state funding, when compared to traditional public schools. For MAS, that gap is over $6 million on an annual basis, made larger by a recent referendum. This gap represents resources that could be put toward the education of our scholars – even more reason corporate and community support is needed to ensure charter schools can provide the very best education possible, one that is equitable and competitive, for all students in Milwaukee.
Bottom line: supporting charter schools means more children in Milwaukee, particularly children of color from low-income households, will have improved life outcomes because their schools have the ability to give them hope, opportunity and a brighter future.
Anthony McHenry is chief executive officer of the Milwaukee Academy of Science. Prior to joining MAS in 2016, McHenry was executive director of the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center in Milwaukee’s Westlawn neighborhood for nearly 20 years.