This coming Monday the Madison Metropolitan School District board will meet at 6 p.m. in the Memorial High School auditorium to vote on final passage of a proposal for independent charter school in the Madison Metropolitan School District. Madison Preparatory Academy was originally proposed by the Urban League of Greater Madison as an all-boys’ school, but School Board concerns about exposure to gender discrimination lawsuits forced the Urban League to change the proposal to include an all-girls’ school as well.
A few months ago I wrote about this and other School Board concerns involving Madison Prep’s insistence on using non-union teachers, and how to raise the $4 million a year to fund the school, including $300,000 per year in “management fees” to the Urban League above and beyond administrative costs, and $240,000 salaries for the top two administrators in a climate of massive budget cuts.
The campaign for Madison Prep has been aggressively pursued in the media for the past year. Madison Urban League CEO Kaleem Caire takes every opportunity to talk about the achievement gap between African American and white kids, low high school graduation rates for kids of color, and the school-to-prison pipeline: All are real conditions in our community. Caire blames teachers and the inflexibility of their union contracts for the problems, once even asserting that two-thirds of the teachers in Madison schools don’t care about black boys.
The fact is, neither the Urban League nor Kaleem Caire has any experience running a school. The project as it is proposed is long on rhetoric and short on coherent educational plans. The proposal is to join the International Baccalaureate curriculum and testing regime with the Harkness teaching model created at Phillips Exeter Academy, with still undisclosed “special activities” that, in the proposal’s first iteration, included JROTC. This curricular cocktail has not been tried anywhere else in the country, and yet it is presumed by its proponents to be able to cause students of color who are struggling academically to succeed and graduate on time.
For their part, the school administration and School Board have not performed their due diligence work on the proposal when it comes to these plans. All of their analysis has been on the business and staffing models. Over the past year I have seen the board and staff scrutinize one middle school experimental curricular program that was going to cost $50,000 more closely than they have done for this entirely new school, whose costs will run into the tens of millions.
Controversy about the proposal has been kept largely under wraps because there have never been any open community discussions about the proposal or what cutting $4 million (over $9 million if you add in the girls’ school) out of the Madison Metropolitan School District general budget would mean for the quality of education for the 8,000 African American kids who are NOT fortunate enough to be selected to attend Madison Prep. The Urban League has hosted a number of tightly controlled presentations, but it has not allowed dissenting viewpoints to be debated.
Many hundreds of people of color and advocates for racial and economic equity within the schools have remained silent and kept their opposition to the proposed Madison Prep to themselves or within trusted circles of friends. This is because the Urban League, through the person of Kaleem Caire, has created a straw man argument for the proposal, which has been largely reproduced by the corporate media: If you oppose the school you’re a racist who doesn’t care about African American kids. See this recent analysis by Thomas J. Mertz on the myths of Madison Prep.
What follows is one of many statements of this nature that I have heard over the past year and a half as Kaleem Caire’s extreme rhetoric has blown through our community. It was penned by a woman who has dedicated her life to working with school kids and families of color in poverty in Madison. She works for an agency that is part of a network of other non-profit and governmental agencies, including ones that have thrown their support behind Madison Prep, and feels that identifying herself might ultimately jeopardize the quality of service her agency is able to provide to the people they serve:
“Those first token poor kids will fail to make the grade, have low attendance due to transportation and relocation issues. They will reveal emotional problems and learning delays that the school is not staffed to address. They will be easy targets for labeling as kids with behavioral problems when their test scores don't measure up. Their parents will miss too many conferences and meetings putting them in violation of the parent contracts. Once this placeholder time-period is over and the kid is kicked out, then what? Back to the public schools or drop out."
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of us who, due to our independence from the institutions involved, are able to put our names to these kinds of statements. The corporate media is spinning this as a story of greedy racist unions against poor black kids. But the real story is a much more tragic one that pits well-intentioned community members against one another in a battle for ever-diminishing public resources.
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.