For Jalateefa Meyers, 36, the question facingmembers of the Madison school board is simple: Do they or do they not want minority children to succeed?
If they do, she says, the board will approve Madison Preparatory Academy, a semi-private charter school proposed by the Urban League of Greater Madison. The school aims to raise graduation rates for at-risk students, with an eye toward bridging the district's racial achievement gap.
It peeves her to hear white parents oppose the school, mostly because the concerns they have for their children seem a world apart from her own.
"I see my ninth-grade son with his friend, and statistically one of them is going to fail," she says. "I don't want that for my son, and I don't want to wish that on someone else's child, either."
Meyers was one of some 200 people who last night packed the McDaniels Auditorium at the Doyle Administration Building for a tense public hearing on Madison Prep.
The Urban League of Greater Madison is seeking nearly $20 million over five years from the Madison Metropolitan School District -- roughly $11,400 for each of the 120 students who would attend in its first year, about $1,700 less than what the district currently spends per student. The Urban League has scaled back its original proposal in a bid to appease critics, including Madison Teachers Inc., the teachers union, which opposed the Urban League's plan to hire non-union employees. In a deal hashed out last week, Madison Prep will now hire union teachers, with the exception of physical education teachers. In exchange, the union will no longer oppose the school.
The Urban League has also reined in costs to fit within the district's budgeting parameters and has agreed to give the school board more oversight of its operations, though the Urban League is still seeking what it admits is "an unprecedented level of autonomy."
Girls would now be able to attend what was once proposed as an all-boys school, though they'd still be taught separately.
But satisfying the special and elected interests clearly hasn't translated into broad public support. The concerns raised at last night's three-hour hearing were as varied as the people who voiced them.
A few presented what collectively amounted to a mixed bag of facts and figures on the success of charter schools, while others cast them as a means for corporate America to privatize public education. Some stood up for the hundreds of at-risk kids who wouldn't be attending the academy.
Will Williams, a black father of four, spoke out against Madison Prep. "It irks me when someone says our young black children either go to charter schools or they go to prison," he told the board. "I have four children that went to Madison public schools, and all succeeded."
Some accused the Urban League of blaming the district for students' shortcomings and claimed the school would create a structural deficit ahead of anticipated cuts the district will make in coming years due to state caps on shared revenue. Others questioned whether the school's administration would be covered under state open records laws.
Some concerns verged on the conspiratorial. More than few saw Madison Prep as an instrument of conservative groups pushing for the privatization of public education. Others worried that board approval would mark the return of segregated schools in Madison.
"This will contribute to the destruction of our public schools," said one.
Stacy Harbaugh, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, opposed Madison Prep's plan to teach girls and boys in different classrooms. "Their intention is to open a sex-segregated school that relies on the notion that boys and girls are so different that they need to be taught separately," she said.
Though the opposition was loud, it wasn't a majority. Several minority parents spoke in support of Madison Prep, as did a couple of white parents with minority children.
Tyler Beck, 18, introduced himself as the valedictorian of the first graduating class of a Chicago charter school. He suggested claims that charter schools have high dropout rates are misleading.
"Those who did leave," said Beck, referring to dropouts at his school, "you can bet they were knocking on every door trying to get back in. There was one young man who cried to get back in the school and they let him back in."
He urged the school board to "hop on board with this," because "Madison Prep isn't offering the only solution, but it's offering a solution."
At least five Urban League employees were on hand to defend the plan, saying they've done everything they can to address critics' concerns.
Laura DeRoche-Perez, the Urban League's director of development, said she's confident the organization can make Madison Prep cost effective, "which makes it replicable throughout the district." She added that "autonomy is critical" to its success.
The audience had thinned considerably by the hearing's third hour, as the speakers, which numbered near 100, began rehashing points already made by speakers who preceded them. Jalateefa Meyers, who didn't speak, was among those who left early. "Right now this district is failing," she said.
"They don't have a solution so when someone brings them a solution, why don't they accept that?" she wondered. "I'm not saying it's the answer to everything, but it's a start."