On Dec. 19, the Madison school board is scheduled to vote on whether to approve Madison Preparatory Academy, a charter school that would target at-risk minority students.
For more than 18 months, the proposal - drawn up by the Urban League of Greater Madison as an ambitious step toward closing the district's racial achievement gap - has polarized the community, with a broad range of critics taking aim on multiple fronts.
The proposal, at least by local standards, is a radical one, under which the Urban League would operate two largely taxpayer-funded, gender-specific secondary schools with an unprecedented level of autonomy. If approved, Madison Prep would open next fall with 120 sixth-graders and peak at 840 students in grades 6 through 12 by its seventh year.
Opponents say the Urban League's proposal combines flawed educational models, discredited science, fuzzy budgeting and unrealistic projections of student success. While some applaud certain elements of the proposal, like longer school days and academic years, they maintain that Madison Prep won't help enough students to justify the $17.5 million cost to the district over its first five years.
The Urban League, on the other hand, argues that an approach like Madison Prep is necessary to bridge the achievement gap between white and minority students, because the district hasn't done enough to address the problem, first documented in 1968. It expects Madison Prep students to score high on statewide assessments and claims 100% of its graduates will be college ready.
Responding to its critics, the Urban League has tweaked its proposal throughout the debate. Most notably it agreed in September to enter into the district's collective bargaining agreement with Madison Teachers Inc. In return, the union would drop its opposition to the plan.
But last month, just weeks before a scheduled board vote on Nov. 28, a district analysis revealed that hiring district staff would create a $13 million funding gap, prompting the Urban League to reverse course and pursue non-instrumentality status.
As a non-instrumentality, Madison Prep would operate with virtually no district oversight or input from the community regarding its hiring practices, student conduct policies and other matters that would normally be open to public discussion.
The Urban League says autonomy is critical to Madison Prep's success, but critics caution that ceding authority to the Urban League without accountability measures in place is fraught with uncertainty.
With just over two weeks until the scheduled vote, the proposal remains mired in questions over its cost and effectiveness. Supporters emphasize that the charter school movement is about experimenting with new ways of addressing persistent problems.
Ahead of the school board's vote, Isthmus offered several of those who've participated in the verbal slugfest the chance to weigh in on the primary issues still surrounding Madison Prep.
Are 840 students worth $17.5 million?
Many question whether Madison Prep provides the best bang for the buck. While skeptics applaud the Urban League for trying to address low achievement among minority students, some say it won't help enough students to justify its expense to the district.
"There will be more than 12,000 low-income students of color left in a situation that hasn't changed," says Carol Carstensen, who resigned in 2010 after 18 years on the Madison school board.
Though she agrees the district needs to improve its success with minority students, Carstensen says nothing in the Urban League's proposal "works with the district to do that."
Urban League president Kaleem Caire spearheaded the proposal upon returning to his native Madison from Washington, D.C., where he worked on a similar proposal. He says Madison Prep isn't a complete solution, but rather a first step in helping more local minority students succeed, particularly black students, nearly half of whom never graduate.
"Before I got here on March 29, 2010, there was no big push for minority student achievement," says Caire. "Now people are talking about it, and now it's 'Kaleem is doing this school that's going to leave all of these other kids behind.'"
Caire concedes that Madison Prep won't reach every at-risk student, but maintains that helping some is better than helping none. Laura DeRoche-Perez, director of school development for the Urban League, says Madison Prep won't take away from other students.
"The kids that Madison Prep will serve are already district students," she says. "We're offering a different way to serve students the district is not really able to reach."
She notes that the district offers many targeted programs, like SAPAR, a curriculum designed for teen parents. "I've never heard that SAPAR takes away from students who aren't parents," she says.
Carstensen rejects the claim that the district has done nothing to address disparities in minority and white student achievement, pointing to several programs developed over the last 15 years, including the acclaimed AVID/TOPS program.
A better approach, Carstensen says, would have been for the Urban League to launch a program within the district and expand it outward, similar to Nuestro Mundo, a Madison charter school that began as a dual-language immersion program.
"There was potential for working with the district to create a really creative program at one of our middle schools that would experiment with some different approaches that could then be expanded to other middle schools," Carstensen says. "But that's not the road that was chosen."
Supporters say the district, if it chooses, can replicate elements of Madison Prep's programming for at-risk students who will remain in district schools. But Carstensen says there would be no way to tell which elements were critical factors in a student's success.
"Was it the longer school year? Was it the uniforms?" she asks. "People will be able to draw whatever conclusions they want."
Is segregation bad, except when it's good?
Opposition to Madison Prep's reliance on sex-segregated classrooms (supporters use the term "gender-specific education") has been an issue from day one.
Initially, the Urban League planned to open its girls' school in Madison Prep's second year but had to launch both schools simultaneously in order to secure state and federal planning grants.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has assailed the Urban League's plan for gender-specific classrooms, calling it a gimmick that reinforces gender stereotypes like the idea that boys and girls learn differently.
The ACLU has warned the school board that a "yes" vote will place the district on shaky legal ground.
The group, which has targeted sex-segregated classrooms nationwide, supports efforts to close the racial achievement gap, but, says communications director Stacy Harbaugh, "As mixed-gender classes are not the cause of the racial achievement gap, public schools must not engage in discriminatory actions in the name of solving it."
The Urban League maintains that separating boys and girls eliminates a major classroom distraction and is central to its teaching philosophy. It says science does support gender-specific learning but was unable to provide Isthmus with any empirical data underlying this element of its model.
UW professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, a Madison Prep board member, points to other Wisconsin schools that provide gender-specific education.
"It's not as if the idea for Madison Prep just sprung out from the ether," she says. "There are models around the country that have been very successful."
Some opponents also say that the proposal promotes racial segregation because it aims for a mostly black and Latino student population, despite a growing population of low-income, low-achieving white students.
Ladson-Billings counters that Madison schools are already segregated, at the peril of minority students.
"Go into West High School and tell me that there's a full integration in its advanced placement classrooms, in its orchestra, in its honors classes," she says. "We're happy to say that because they're in the same building they're in an integrated setting, but they're not."
By law, Ladson-Billings adds, Madison Prep cannot reject students based on race, but suggests that because it will offer culturally relevant education for black and Latino students, white students may refrain from enrolling.
"We have over a hundred historically black colleges and universities across the nation," she says. "All of them are open to all students, but white students choose not to be with black students."
Will Madison Prep attract the right students?
A key feature of Madison Prep's educational model is the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IB diploma), a prestigious, academically rigorous curriculum many say gives students an edge in college admissions.
For this reason, critics are concerned that Madison Prep will attract high-achieving, college-bound students rather than the low-achieving ones it's intended to serve.
"Madison schools don't have enough honors classes or advanced placement classes as is," says Michael Johnson, co-chair of Progressive Dane, which opposes the plan.
Johnson, 23, earned an IB diploma as a student at Milwaukee's Rufus King International, a competitive-entry magnet school that routinely ranks among the state's best schools. Johnson questions whether students who've already fallen behind can satisfy the demands of a program that sees high attrition even among advanced students.
"The International Baccalaureate program having an effect on the achievement gap is questionable at best," he says, claiming the Urban League is "selling a bill of goods they can't provide."
Kaleem Caire says that Madison Prep students would prepare for the diploma program during the middle school years. "With more time in class, more instruction, more support, we think our kids will fare better," he says.
The Urban League expects that Madison Prep students will score better on statewide reading, math and language assessments than students at Rufus King, projections some say are unrealistic.
"If they're truly going to take the kids who are struggling, anyone who knows anything about education knows that's not going to happen," says TJ Mertz, an education watchdog and history professor at Edgewood College. "You don't just sign up to get into Rufus King - you have to test into it. I'm all for high expectations, but they keep putting out these numbers that don't stand up to scrutiny."
Some, like Carol Carstensen, also question whether parents of low-income students, who typically are less engaged in school affairs, will have the wherewithal to follow through with the enrollment process.
Krystal Sanchez-Powell was the only parent who attended a recent informational meeting at East High School. She's considering Madison Prep for her daughter, a fifth-grader who currently excels in school.
"I like the idea of her attending a preparatory academy," she said before the meeting. "I think it would definitely help her get into a good college."
The only Urban League representative at the meeting was a volunteer who Sanchez-Powell says wasn't able to answer many questions. She was surprised to learn from a reporter after the meeting that Madison Prep is intended for low-achieving students.
"The flier I got didn't mention that," she says. "I would definitely have second thoughts about putting her with students who aren't doing well."
What does non-instrumentality status mean?
Perhaps the most controversial part of the Urban League's proposal is that it wants Madison Prep to be a non-instrumentality.
Non-instrumentality status would also allow Madison Prep to hire non-union staff and write its own employment policies. (A new district analysis looking at oversight and accountability issues is due out Dec. 4.)
John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., says the level of autonomy sought by Madison Prep is alarming. "I think school board members will have a big conscience problem, and a lot of hot taxpayers, if they provide funds to a source which is not accountable to them as board members," he says.
Caire wouldn't say how closely Madison Prep would adhere to current district policies if given non-instrumentality status. He says for Madison Prep to succeed, it needs the flexibility to respond to circumstances as they change, including replacing teachers who underperform.
This reluctance to discuss policy is "a real problem," according to Mertz. "There's a whole lot of things that [the school district], along with the community, has developed for how we want our public institutions to function, and they're saying, 'We're throwing all that in the garbage; you have to trust us.'"
The district has hundreds of policies in place to chart the course in areas like healthy foods, contracting for services, student conduct, and disciplinary actions.
"Are they going to be hiring based on who someone knows or based on their qualifications?" asks Mertz. "They've indicated they'll be open to military recruiting. Now that's something our community has spoken very loudly about, and we don't know what they're going to do. They're not telling us."
Caire says the teachers union has diverted attention from why Madison Prep was proposed in the first place.
"The last eight or nine months haven't been about educating kids, it's been about whether or not the school should exist, whether it should have a union, whether there will be too many black kids," he says. "It's been one thing after another."
What remains unknown? Depends on whom you ask
Mertz wonders what happens in the event that Madison Prep fails to meet its fundraising goals. Currently, the reliability of Madison Prep's budget hinges on its ability to raise roughly $1 million a year through private fundraising. (A stipulation in a $2.5 million gift to Madison Prep from a wealthy supporter states that the money can't be used to offset fundraising goals.)
"If over five years they only raise $4 million, that means in terms of the student services they're intending to deliver they can't deliver $1 million worth, and that can be significant," he says.
Caire replies, "Our fundraising goals are not that ambitious. It looks large but it's not that challenging to raise the kind of money we're talking about."
He says the schools would still operate even if fundraising goals are not met. "But not at the level we'd want to," he says.
On the district website, dozens of questions posted by school board members remain unanswered. In its Nov. 13 analysis of the proposal, the district raised some of its own concerns. The legality of pre-screening prospective students was questioned, as was the goal of hiring "a significant number of highly qualified teachers of color."
Federal law prohibits race from being a factor in hiring decisions.
Critics have also asked to see what Madison Prep's graduation requirements will look like, how students will get to and from school, and how it'll accommodate - and pay for - high-need special ed kids who, like white or advanced students, can't be denied entry.
Caire accuses critics of using questions to fuel an endless debate. "Why are we being asked questions that they don't ask of their own schools that are already spending the public's money?" he asks.
Caire says that the Urban League has answered the district's questions to no avail. "When you have a charter school come before you, your job is not to nitpick the academic program to death," he says. "Your job is to ensure that they have an academic program and a coherent set of plans and strategies."
After nearly two years of debate, Mertz doesn't expect these issues will be resolved prior to the school board's Dec. 19 vote. The Urban League, he says, "had its bite at the apple," but has failed to "make a reasonable case in a reasonable time frame."
"The fact that there are so many unanswered questions at this point is definitely a strike against the enterprise," he says, "because it comes to trusting these people to open a school that is going to do right by kids, and they don't seem to have a plan to do that."
By contrast, Gloria Ladson-Billings says there isn't much more supporters can do at this point.
"I think we have talked about our plan, we have discussed every aspect of this program from the funding to the staffing to the physical location," she says. "We've done our part to make what I think is a strong rationale for why we need to do this."