By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 26, 2014 at 5:18 AM

On Thursday, the lobby at City Hall echoed with the voices from a press conference held by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future to announce the release of a new report, "Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin."

The 52-page report, written by Gordon Lafer and the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, asks the question "Are charter schools better than public schools?" and examines the work of corporate lobbyists and politicians to privatize public education.  Not so much breaking new ground, the report instead serves to reiterate and remind of the challenges to public schools and the arguments used to make those challenges.

On hand at the event were Lafer, who is a political economist and associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, Milwaukee Ald. Nik Kovac, Wisconsin Sen. Mandela Barnes and Milwaukee's Dr. Alex Molnar, who is publications director of the National Education Policy Center and research professor at the University of Boulder, Colo.

Lafer laid out the basics of his report, in which he argues that while charter schools were conceived to bring to life the visions of expert educators and committed parents – like Milwaukee’s respected Highland Community School and the nationally recognized ALBA, for example – the larger charter school movement has changed.

"The original image of a charter school revolves around a lone dedicated educator, or a local community of parents, who decide to take over a school and make it into something better for their kids," he writes.

"In reality, rather than a proliferation of small experiments, the last few years have witnessed a pattern of corporate consolidation. By 2011 less than 17 percent of charter students were in schools run by companies that operated three or fewer schools. The majority were overseen by corporations operating 10 or more schools. By far the fastest-growing sector of the industry has been online or virtual schools."

Lafer's report focuses heavily on Rocketship, the California charter school chain operator that opened one school in Milwaukee this academic year and plans to open up to seven more in coming years. On Thursday, he explained how even nonprofit charter operators can provide substantial financial benefits to their supporters.

Rocketship, he also noted, spends nearly 30 percent of its budget on non-school administration, compared to MPS, where 8 percent is spent on those costs. The schools also have teacher turnover rates that average 29 percent – as high as 37 percent at one of those schools – as compared to MPS' 12 percent teacher turnover, which includes retirements.

At least seven of the nine California Rocketship schools have failed to make adequate yearly progress at least once in the past three years and four of them didn't make AYP twice or more during that period.

"I visited Rocketship's school here in Milwaukee," he told the crowd of about 75 gathered in the lobby. "I met some very nice people who are working hard to do the right thing, but they don't control the model. ... This is the moment to slow down and re-think the model."

After examining the research, Lafer – who points to more than 80 studies conducted over 12 years – concludes, "there is no evidentiary basis for believing that substituting charters for public schools will, in itself, improve education in Milwaukee or any other city.

"In many cases, the promise of charter schools has turned into a dismal reality. In Indiana, nearly half the state’s charter schools received grades of ‘D’ or ‘F’ in 2012. In Ohio, which has authorized charter schools in the state’s eight largest cities for nearly 20 years, nearly 84,000 students – or 87 percent of the state’s charter students – were in schools graded ‘D’ or ‘F’ in 2012-2013."

So, who is pushing for the expansion of schools run by large charter operators?

"In Wisconsin as in the nation generally," writes Lafer, "the loudest voices demanding radical education reform did not come from either students or their parents, but from corporate lobbies."

And in Milwaukee, specifically, he notes the lobbying work of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC).

"At least as far back as 2011, MMAC has called for creating a new kind of school district within the city – outside the control of the elected board or superintendent – that would recruit privately run charter schools to take over education of low-performing students.

"Over the course of the 2013-2014 legislative session, lawmakers introduced a number of bills that took steps in the direction of the goals laid out by WPRI (Wisconsin Policy Research Institute) and supported by MMAC and other corporate lobbies. Although none of these bills became law, they likely point to the agenda for next year’s legislative debates."

Kovac – a member of the Common Council that authorized Rocketship's charter – called poverty the "elephant in the room" in the discussion and suggested that is where the State Legislature ought to focus its attention.

"The effects of concentrated poverty are devastating both on funding for the education system and on the social structures of the parents, teachers and students on the money that you're spending. If legislators (in Madison) are serious about improving the education of poor students, the most important thing they could do is take seriously the fact that poverty is the single biggest roadblock to improving education."

In his conclusion, Lafer argues that if legislators want to boost the efficacy of education in Wisconsin, they should restore SAGE funding to limit class sizes and work to battle the extreme poverty faced by urban schoolchildren in the state.

Tests, he writes, must be improved to "create means of accurately capturing both what school face and what they produce," and accountability must delve deeper than test scores.

Lafer adds that all publicly funded schools should be held to the same standards, the same transparency, the same ethics rules and the same direct accountability to students and parents as public schools in the form of governance boards elected by parents and the community at large.

On Thursday, Molnar delivered a concise, impassioned argument for supporting public schools and for viewing political and lobbyist support for charter and choice schools.

"If (charter schools like Rocketship) are the best of the best," Lafer asked at the event, "why are they not being proposed in Fox Point?"

The entire report is available here.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.