Kaleem Caire is feeling pretty confident that the Madison school board will approve Madison Preparatory Academy in late November. After all, he's made substantial concessions to appease his most influential critics, and support for the charter school, which would target at-risk minority students, appears to be gaining momentum.
Still, Caire, who is CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, the nonprofit agency that would run the school, faces a dedicated opposition that remains unflinching in its wide-ranging criticism, some of it highly personal. Some opponents have called Caire an "enemy of public education."
"The fact that people scrutinize us isn't the issue, but it gets to the point where some of this borders on ridiculous," he says.
Caire proposed the school last year, calling it an important first step in closing the minority achievement gap, a problem first documented by the Urban League in 1968. Supporters say that after four decades of doing little, the time has come for a more radical approach.
"Can you imagine this city if 48% of the white kids were dropping out?" asks Gloria Ladson-Billings, an education professor at UW-Madison and Madison Prep board member. "I don't get why that kind of failure is tolerable."
To opponents like TJ Mertz, an Edgewood College history professor, Madison Prep as a solution falls short, in part, he says, because it doesn't address the causes behind the achievement gap. He admits there's little the Urban League could do to earn his support. He accuses Caire of selling false hope to desperate parents.
"We can do best practices, but I'm not going to say, 'Follow my path and we'll be in paradise,' because it's not going to happen," says Mertz, who writes about education on his website Madisonamps.org. "Part of what I resent about the Madison Prep marketing campaign is that's essentially what they're saying." But the truth is, adds Mertz, "No one has the answer."
As November's vote looms, the conversation will undoubtedly grow more heated. Understanding that he can't please everybody, Caire says he's done making compromises.
"We've tried to come to the table to negotiate, to have this be a community effort without acquiescing on the innovative elements of our program," he says. "Yet there's still a push to get us to be more like the district schools. It's been one thing after another."
There is no question that the Urban League has scaled back its original vision for Madison Prep in a bid to satisfy critics. It expedited the opening of a girls' school after initially planning to start with boys-only education. It has reined in costs, and a $2.5 million gift from a prominent supporter has brought per pupil costs down even further.
It also made the politically prudent choice to enter into the district's collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union after initially planning to use non-union teachers.
"A lot of this has been all about the unions," says Caire. "No one said, 'Let's make it an instrumentality [a school where staff is employed by the chartering school district] because that's the best thing for kids.'"
The biggest challenge in being part of the union, says Caire, is "the ways in which we can hold teachers accountable."
But champions of traditional public schools say they are, in turn, concerned about holding the charter school accountable to taxpayers. And they worry about money being siphoned off from an already struggling public school system.
Some of this criticism has been muted, however, for fear it will be seen in a broad, negative light. One prominent Caucasian critic said during an interview with Isthmus, "Please don't make me look racist in this."
No one denies there is a large chasm between white and minority student achievement, but whether it's a racial or socioeconomic issue is a point of contention. Mertz believes the achievement gap stems from larger societal issues that the district alone can't remedy.
"Minority achievement is a complex category," says Mertz. "For a lot of people there's a certain desperation, and when someone comes along and says, 'I have the solution to your problem,' people want to believe that."
Caire scoffs at the notion that race doesn't influence minority children's ability to succeed. While he agrees issues like poverty play a leading role in the achievement gap, he says that white and black children experience poverty differently.
"With black children, if you trace their lineage back, you'd find they've likely never had anyone in their family who hasn't been poor, or if they have it's very few people. It's more generational and enduring," he says.
Caire notes that while his sons don't live in the poverty he grew up in, many of the social challenges remain unchanged from when he was a student himself in the Madison schools.
"They are still the only black boys in their classroom, by and large. They still don't have black teachers," he says. "A lot of kids are failing in schools not because they're academically unable, but because there's these other social factors going on. And that's the part that you've got to be one of us to understand, I guess."
WIBA radio host Derrell Connor says there are a lot of phony arguments against Madison Prep.
"I hear a lot that black folks need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and take responsibility for the issues that affect their community," says Connor, who is black. "Here's a situation where you have folks looking at an issue and have come up with an idea to help address it."
But, he notes, "We're sitting around discussing whether it's segregation. It's a public school. It's open to everybody."
If Madison Prep is approved, it'll open with two academies serving 120 sixth-graders - 60 boys and 60 girls. In the meantime, the school board is awaiting details on a number of matters. Still unknown, according to board member Ed Hughes, are the policies and statutes Madison Prep wants waivers from or what accountability measures will be put in place.
The ways in which the Urban League will be held accountable isn't Caire's decision, he says. "If you were to propose something to your boss and you said, 'Boss, I want to do this but here's how I want you to hold me accountable,' what's that sound like?" Caire says it's up to the school board to determine how Madison Prep will be held accountable.
Details of the tentative agreement struck between the Urban League and the teachers union remain murky. Hughes wonders how Madison Prep will target at-risk students and also what the school day will look like.
"Once the actual details of the proposal are known, we'll know what we're actually talking about," he says. "Then we need to have a hearing so people can react to the specifics."
Caire says the educational plan will soon be released, adding that parents and others will have the option of attending a mock school day.
Though Madison Prep would be open to everyone, there are things the Urban League will do to target the at-risk minority students it's designed to help.
"We're going to make sure enrollment locations are near poor communities," Caire says. "If you're not a poor family that wants to come and enroll, you've got to drive to one of those neighborhoods or come to the Urban League to apply."
Though many oppose Madison Prep's single-sex classrooms, Caire says that's the way it will be. "There is research that shows, at best, single-sex schools are helpful and, at worst, that there really is no impact."
Mertz isn't a fan of charter schools in general and hopes the school board votes against Madison Prep.
"Setting aside these little schools and pretending we've addressed larger issues doesn't work," he says. "Especially because it invites market-based solutions that undermine the very concept of public education."
One mother, who asked that her name be withheld due to the issue's volatility, tells Isthmus that spending money on a handful of students isn't fair to those who'll be left behind. "I'd like to see a major coalition built around people coming together and saying, 'Public education needs more,'" she says.
For Derrell Connor, this is just the type of thing Madison Prep aims to avoid - more empty talk.
"We just do studies and get a result but we don't take the next step, which is how do we attack it?" he says. "If they were concerned about the rest of those students we'd have been addressing this issue long ago."