Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
The most straightforward, clear and dispassionate vote taken on the Madison Preparatory Academy charter school proposal at last Monday’s Madison Metropolitan School District Board meeting didn’t even count. It was the advisory vote cast by the student representative, Philippo Bulgarelli.
The School Board turned down the controversial proposal on a 5-2 vote, and after nearly five hours of public testimony, all the school board members gave speeches explaining how they arrived at their decisions. In addition to being the most succinct, Bulgarelli’s statement penetrated all of the intense emotions and wildly divergent interpretations of data and personal anecdotes used to argue both for and against the proposal. Bulgarelli said that the students for whom he speaks did not have enough information to make a reasonably good decision, so he voted to abstain.
“For every discussion we had, the plan changed,” said Bulgarelli as he explained how he tried to organize information and discussion sessions for students at MMSD high schools. “Something about the facts of the proposal changed, and without the current and correct information to give to students, these complications made discussion and debate impossible.”
The first version of the Madison Prep proposal unveiled in the fall of 2010 was thin on substance and heavy on rhetoric. The proposal has since gone through multiple revisions, but the balance of good information and solid data to promotional hype has shifted only slightly.
Repeated requests for more and better information about the school’s business plan from the School Board and MMSD staff have been the impetus for whatever additional information has been provided. Secret negotiations between school district staff, labor unions, and Madison Prep leadership over costs and terms of employment have also been the cause of the ever-changing numbers in spreadsheets.
Some details present in the first proposal have long since vanished. The Power Point presentation given at the proposal’s unveiling last year listed JROTC and fraternities as “special activities” that would be integral to black boys’ academic success at Madison Prep. After vocal public opposition to these aspects, the special activities category remains in the proposal, but JROTC and fraternities have not been mentioned specifically. It is not clear whether or not they were dropped from the plan.
The content of the educational plan itself has not been substantially altered or even fully fleshed out by proponents. Nor has it been scrutinized with any amount of rigor by the School Board or administration. The melding together of such disparate elements as the International Baccalaureate curriculum and testing regime, Harkness, a pedagogical method developed at Philips Exeter academy, parent report cards and contracts and military training is an unprecedented strategy for eliminating the racial achievement gap.
Although the Madison Prep proposal is a slightly modified version of a proposal for the Next Generation charter school that Madison Prep author and Urban League of Greater Madison CEO Kaleem Caire tried and failed to open in Washington, D.C. several years ago, proponents are suggesting to the public that the plan was developed in consultation with 1,700 community members during listening sessions over the course of the past two years here in Madison.
Caire characterized School Board requests for more information and the serious legal questions raised about gender discrimination as obstacles deliberately meant to foil his bold plan.
Proceeding on the theory that best defense is a good offense, Caire and his hired charter school consultants from southern California, Laura DeRoche-Perez and Stephen Perez, developed a successful media campaign designed to deflect all attention away from the actual substance — or lack thereof — of the proposal, and to cast anyone who raised legitimate questions about it as a racist who doesn’t care about black kids.
Furthermore, anyone asking questions about Caire’s background with the military and working for and with rightwing organizations promoting the privatization of public schools (the Black Alliance for Educational Options founded by the Bradley Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, Fight for Children/JE Robert Companies) is dismissed as a conspiracy theorist and accused of personally attacking him.
This PR campaign was so successful that in her closing statement on Monday night, School Board member Maya Cole quipped, “Somehow you’ve gotten all the newspapers in the community to agree with each other.”
In a recent opinion piece in the Capital Times, Caire spun a fantastic yarn filled with overblown rhetoric (“we have to walk across a million razor blades and through thousands of rose bushes with our bare feet”), half-truths (“they have no other solutions in place to address the issues our children face”), and unfounded accusations (“opponents to charter schools and Madison Prep ramped up their misinformation and personal attack campaign”).
For some supporters of Madison Prep testifying at the meeting on Monday, details of the proposal weren’t important. I wonder how many of the sixty-some people testifying in favor of Madison Prep had even seen the proposal, let alone read it thoroughly. Several people urged the Board to not get bogged down in the details of the proposal or to get too caught up in analytical thinking, but to vote with their hearts.
Jan O'Neil went one step further, asserting, “This vote is not about Madison Prep, it’s about who we are as a community.” Referring to the large proportion of Madison Prep supporters who are conservative business people and right-leaning politicians, O’Neil telegraphed the next step in the Madison Prep public relations strategy: “We have the political capital in this room to change the narrative of this community.”
On the surface, the bedfellows are strange indeed. When a School District budget hawk like Don Severson and socially conservative commentator like David Blaska, who last March wrote, “I confess this: I do not support our public schools,” promote a school that would cost the district tens of millions of dollars over the next five years and require an increase in the tax levy, something out of the ordinary is afoot.
Like Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich teaming up with US Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2009 for a three-city charter school tour, this local alliance of corporate executives, libertarian politicians and “educational entrepreneurs,” as Caire describes himself, is all about business. And the business is about obtaining a secure stream of public funding to attract more private investment in what are essentially private ventures outside of the scrutiny or accountability systems of democratically elected school boards.
One of the pesky little details in the Madison Prep proposal that made it difficult for board members to support it is the legal conflict between how Madison Prep would hire and supervise employees and the collective bargaining agreement in place with MMSD employees through June 2013.
The two Board members voting for the proposal did so fully aware of this issue. They both made statements that are deeply troubling to hear come out of the mouths of elected officials. Lucy Mathiak said, “There are lots of laws, but that doesn’t mean we always choose to be held accountable for them.” And Board President James Howard added, “Legality should not cost the kids.”
If Bulgarelli gave the clearest commentary on his vote, the alternate student School Board representative Meredith Paker gave equally measured and reasoned testimony: “It concerns me that voices are telling you to ignore ‘contract mumbo jumbo’ or that lack of oversight is not a problem.” Noting that School Board members’ job is not to win popularity contests with pressure groups, she reminded them that “thoughtful, measured oversight is important for elected officials. When I vote for the first time next year I want my vote to mean something.”
Paker will have the chance to vote in two school board races this coming April. Mary Burke, former Wisconsin Department of Commerce Secretary and inheritor of the Trek Bicycle fortune who just pledged to donate $2.5 million to Madison Prep, has announced her candidacy for the seat being vacated by Lucy Mathiak. At the conclusion of Monday’s meeting, Caire urged all of his supporters to consider challenging Arlene Silveira for her seat, since she opposed Madison Prep.
On Wednesday, the Board of Directors of Madison Preparatory Academy voted to open as a private school in August of 2012.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.