Tuesday, September 9, 2014

$100 FOR A CHARTER REFERRAL EXPOSES SCHOOL CHOICE MOVEMENT AS CRASS CHARADE

By Dominique Paul Noth


Dancing  $100 bills at the Urban Day School website
A hundred dollars for any parent who refers another parent to a charter elementary school? Even when the Journal Sentinel reported this scheme by UWM chartered Urban Day School, it couldn’t resist some false equivalency. It suggested that such cash for kids in a poor neighborhood  – timed to the date the school would get taxpayer money if the referred student shows up – is somehow a shrewd extension of the competitive “free market” system in education, to paraphrase the article.

Sorry guys. Bribery ain’t an “economic incentive” outside of cadging cigarets in prison.

The Wisconsin funding formula does put pressure on all schools to make sure students are there to be counted on the third Friday of September – the state’s official enrollment day to get taxpayer money.  But in the city of Milwaukee, parents unhappy with their voucher or private school education can approach the MPS any day of the school year to get their child transferred, regardless of whether (weirdly) the MPS has to wait a semester or more to get state payment. 

Not apparently at Urban Day. The $100  offer to a referring parent --  who may quietly share the proceeds with accepting parents, there is no regulations about this, and it’s even more lucrative if you bring in two or three children --  disappears after Sept. 19, as the website warns.  And if the school gains back with dollars  the 110 kids it is short,  this “public school” can cut applicants off, which strikes me as hardly public.

The school doesn’t see anything wrong with giving $100 per student, because it eventually comes from the taxpayers to go to adult salesmen.

The charade is exposed. (And that should have been the JS headline.)  The school choice movement  has lost any intelligent claim that it is concerned about the kids, not the money. 

“Free market” competition? Natural share? Well, nature is working in favor of  the public schools and  so is the competitive  marketplace when you take away gimmicks.

Noted Rep. Evan Goyke, in whose legislative district the school at 1441 N. 24th St. is located, “This disgusts me. It reduces educating kids  to the level of a retail market, like cable television, which offers a discount if you bring in a customer.”

For years educators have been pleading in vain with the Walker administration for  some oversight agency with teeth  to monitor how charter and voucher schools peddle their wares. Now those who care about education have  been done in yet again by unsupervised schools feeling free to hire marketing Mad Men.

Of course there are some good charter schools, but more and more news analysis is exposing how much of the charter movement is a racket under investigation.

Privately operated charter and voucher schools claim that profit is not primary in their blandishments.  The selling game at Urban Day School flat undermines that concept. It  also should serve as a warning to neighborhoods that think there is anything permanent in the polished presentations and promises, since all those riches and attention can rapidly evaporate as the market turns and the only way to keep enrollment up is manipulation of parents, not what is happening in the classroom.


For those who don't Internet, the
school produced flyers.
Bob Peterson, the president of the Milwaukee teachers union, posted an angry blog about this but it can hardly be regarded as a pro-union comment by an outspoken pro-union figure. Peterson was making a basic point about education. Schools should be about what’s best for the child, not artificial inducements that drive a parent to drag a child to a school regardless of curriculum. Because that is what Urban Day School is doing. And authorizing agency UWM, as he says, should be ashamed at this  blatant appeal to the wallet.  It isn’t even asking parents who like Urban Day to tell their friends. It is a bribe to any parent who makes a referral.

So any claim that this is simply a competitive marketing ploy evaporates when you think of sticking a hundred dollars into some grownup’s hand to talk another parent into getting his child there by a specific money-generating date. Any conniving citizen who needs a hundred bucks (not all parents are saints) could have many motives beside education.  And if they do care about their kids, they have to realize that the MPS doesn’t do this and they can walk away to another school a week later! So much for family involvement.

At Urban Day it’s $100. At another UWM charter school a referral brings a $50 grocery store  cardSuch rewards for referrals are clearly the bridge too far for serious educators.

The false equivalency rampant in our media was also in the JS story, comparing this tactic to simply making sure students show up for the Sept. 19 count.  But when MPS offers pancake breakfasts that key day, which the article points out, that is for students already enrolled. It’s a nutritious way to assure they show up  rather than stuffing bills in a parent’s pocket. 

Other complaints I got from UWM staff  and Milwaukee parents dealt more with the  optics – the JS story used a totally unrelated photo of a happy CEO surrounded by grinning Urban Day kids rather than the school’s website of  floating $100 bills for greedy parents. TV stations proved more mature in their coverage, realizing the brazenness of the website was the real story.

The come-on damaged Urban Day’s self-proclaimed vision of competence.  The school has  suffered a major enrollment drop in the last few years and also lost its federal Head Start funding. Previously it had not been demonized as one of the problem offspring of the voucher and charter movement, having been around for more than a century in various forms, then taken over as a UWM charter school in 2010. 

But this selling tactic as a response to its free market economic downturn  reflects poorly on its prestigious set of officers and trustees representing such organizations as the Milwaukee Bucks, Northwestern Mutual, We Energies, Time Warner and even a children’s court judge, all of whom must now be raising some troubling questions of their own. Apparently the dollars for kids idea has never been adjudicated or even found legal.

We weren’t aware of this before,” said UWM spokesman Tom Luljak in a phone interview September 9, “and our legal team is now investigating.” 

If charter schools – technically public schools though MPS always accepts every student without checking with the bookkeeper, while private charter schools seem able to turn away kids or find ways not to take them in – are allowed to behave this way, the next question is clear: Just what is going on at voucher schools? 

Up to now most of the coverage has focused on the cost in the voucher legislation to public schoolsBut now that  Gov. Scott Walker seeks to expand  it statewide despite outrage in Beloit and elsewhere, more attention is being paid to how these schools sell parents to participate despite poor educational outcomes.

News story exploring the insides of the voucher schools in Milwaukee have largely had to appear in publications outside Milwaukee, given what many academics regard as a partisan tilt in local education coverage. But as more such stories are coming out,  their conclusions are frankly sickening, even if a must read for any parent contemplating this path.

Perhaps in its blatancy, Urban Day has done a public service. Its overt grab for artificial enrollment figures using money as a carrot for grownups has launched in-depth investigations by UWM, the DPI and Madison legislators, all thinking the state is now suffering an ethical black eye.


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news.

From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with its still operative archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com


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