Tuesday, September 23, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Ald. Nik Kovac
Starting today (September 23)  leading aldermen of the Milwaukee Common Council are working out a resolution declaring illegal the use of financial incentives for  adults  to lure children to sign up for state taxpayer money at the city of Milwaukee charter schools.

UWM is currently investigating its own legal reaction to similar “cash for kids” maneuvers -- a $100 referral at Urban Day School and a quizzical $50 grocery store card at another school. State legislators are also asking for answers to the legality of the “cash for kids” concept, one even arguing it is “100% against the law according to federal guidelines” for K-3 and K-4 education.

The aldermanic move is being led by council president Michael Murphy and the 3rd District’s Nik Kovac, though they expect widespread agreement. “I can’t see anyone opposing this common sense cleanup,” said Kovac in a chat September 22.  “I think by the time it is introduced, many others will come along.”

The trigger was evidence that one city authorized charter school, Central City Cyberschool, a K-4 through eighth grade city charter at 4301 N. 44th St. in Ald. Willie Wade’s district, had offered $200 in cash to get a new student to register at the school by the date the state gives out taxpayer money for the first semester, September 19. The referral reward would be paid on the October date the state confirms the school is getting tuition money in the name of the new student.

The school’s literature is particularly blatant in appealing to adults connected with the school to bring in new students: 

Cyberschool Parents! Here is your chance to handpick the students that attend school with your child. If a new student enrolls at Cyberschool by September 19th, and lists your full name on their application in the REFERRED BY section, you can earn $200.”

The appeal is not limited to parents but is extended to staff and various unaffiliated “daycare centers” used by others at the Cyberschool.

 The “cash for kids” device came under fire in recent stories that went beyond the Journal Sentinel view of the practice as simply business as usual in a competitive “free market” environment. It evoked broader outrage in the community about bribing adults to convince families to send their kids to a school for the adult’s financial gain. 

 “At the very least you’d expect a responsible parent to ask about curriculum,” said Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee teachers union at a campus rally the MTEA and community education activists organized in great haste and anger in front of the UMW education school building on Hartford Ave.    

“It’s not the same,” one business leader told me, insisting on anonymity because he is a major funder of conservative causes. He was pointing to what he calls the “bring in a customer gimmick” that companies he’s close to --  phone,  cable and even Internet providers –- are now using  to attract new customers.  A private business might see a marketing lure in offering a discount, free service or cashback to an existing customer to bring in a new one   -- “but that should not be applied to children and education.  That is a hell of a way to choose a school for your kid.”

Learning of the Cyberschool flyer, Common Council leaders immediately scorned the practice and are moving to make it illegal for all city chartered schools, hoping to write the resolution to allow “more normal incentives such as a free pizza party,” said Kovac.  Under state law, the city is one of several government agencies authorized to approve charter schools.

Cyberschool received $305,000 in government money from planning to opening (2000) and then into 2003. All required city of Milwaukee charter committee approval before the state as conduit could pass along the federal charter funds. There is a considerable financial reward for such funding of planning and startup. Today a charter school receives annually about $8,075 per pupil it lists as enrolled on Sept. 19. Cyberschool operators were willing to set $200 per new pupil aside -- not for classrooms or teachers but to give adults who goose their numbers.

Those new students can leave a few days later – a growing practice at the city’s private voucher and charter schools -- and Milwaukee Public Schools will have to take them in even if state funding doesn’t follow for months.  In the meantime, the private school gets to keep the state money.

Recent reports from the Department of Public Instruction put Cyberschool’s earlier enrollment (2013) at 278, but neighborhood observers say it has declined since then. Still, in 14 years of operation, the government money for a school of this size can easily top $23 million.

UWM has also said it will investigate the practice at its dozen schools and as of this writing had reached no conclusion.  But pressure is being put on.

Their recent chancellor, Mike Lovell, was tapped by Marquette University to become its first lay president in August (and he will probably not be totally out of this thicket over there, since the vetting organization for city of Milwaukee charter schools is Marquette University’s Institution for Transformation of Learning, run by Howard Fuller, whose admirers stack the city of Milwaukee charter committee, which is also being questioned on this practice).

UWM meanwhile is searching for a new chancellor, and the issue has been put before the University Committee (leaders of the faculty senate), an influential search arm.  The faculty is directly being encouraged to weigh in their search for a new chancellor this practice of bribe/incentives as well as the larger impact on a public university of authorizing separate K-12 charter schools that undermine the state’s financial support for MPS, according to speakers at the public comment sessions. 

The city says it is not waiting on UWM in outlawing the practice at the schools it charters. The aldermen are confident that the resolution will move through with little objection if written precisely, partly because leading charter school spokesmen are quietly agreeing that the come-on of “cash for kids” has been a black-eye for them.

There is a larger hidden reason for the charter leaders’ distress. They have reason to fear future scrutiny by Wisconsin, which has expanded voucher and charter funding but without some of the immediate controls and accountability pushed for by educators.  There is already agitation in the state legislature, hardly all Democratic concerns, to move beyond outlawing direct financial gimmes to establishing tighter rules of the road on how voucher and charter schools can market themselves to children. 

Bob Peterson
MPS didn’t seek out this issue, Peterson told me. “A person who lives in the Urban Day neighborhood alerted us to the bribery scheme after she got a flyer at her house. After it was posted on Facebook other people described similar schemes.”

“The good thing about this whole incident is that it exposes how far the privatizers will go to undermine the public schools. They use public tax dollars to increase enrollment at private schools at the expense of public schools -- it's like the taxpayer gets hit twice.”

While a strong advocate of unionized teachers, Petersen says his main reaction was surprise at the degree of ignorance among citizens to the double whammy.

“It became obvious after our picket line and further discussions at UWM that many UWM staff are not even aware that UWM charters privately-run schools,” he told me. “Furthermore they have no clue what the process is.”

UWM’s charter advisory  committee, chosen from its various education divisions and including five faculty members, a community member and a representative of the dean of education,  recommends which private schools, K-12,  will receive state tuition money for each student under UWM’s authorization.

According to vice chancellor Tom Luljak, UWM administrators did not know in advance of the Urban Day School’s marketing method -- despite the advisory committee’s mandated responsibility for operational policies and monitoring.

Said Peterson: “It's a sad day when a public institution like UWM or the Common Council of Milwaukee charters privately-run schools which ultimately have negative impact on Milwaukee public schools.” 

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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