The whole agonizing conflict over Madison Preparatory Academy did not end on Monday night, when the school board voted 5-2 against allowing the African American charter school to open next fall. Now comes the lawsuit.
But first, our community faces two immediate tasks: healing the wounds that were ripped open during the Madison Prep controversy, and getting something done about the urgent problem the charter school was developed to address - Madison's disgraceful achievement gap for African American children.
Monday night's six hours of emotional testimony mostly highlighted the first of those two problems. In front of the packed auditorium at Memorial High School, Urban League president and Madison Prep founder Kaleem Caire read "What happens to a dream deferred?" to the school board. Nichelle Nichols, the Urban League's vice president of learning, read a poem that placed the blame for her own children's spoiled futures squarely on Madison Metropolitan School District officials: "My kids are in the gap, a chasm so dark…. I ask, Mr. Superintendent, what happened to my sons…?"
The sense that Madison has mistreated children of color was a powerful theme. White business leader and former teacher Jan O'Neil pointed out the "huge amount of capital in this room," all focused on solving the historic educational inequality for African American kids. A "no" vote, she warned the board, might be hopelessly polarizing.
On the other side, a school social worker noted that the latest Madison Prep proposal got rid of school social workers and psychologists, not to mention relying on non-union teachers who are paid less than the market rate. This was a slap in the face to the people who are working to help the most vulnerable children in our community, she implied. Those same children would not be served by Madison Prep, she added, because of barriers like a lottery for enrollment and an application process with interviews and other requirements their families can't meet.
Madison Prep, she said, is a "distraction," since it does not address the real problems of poverty and homelessness, better education in the early years, or adequate funding for the rest of the public schools.
Several speakers, both white and black, endorsed the idea that white teachers should accept that they might not be able to connect as well with African American students as African American role models can. An extension of that argument is Caire's rationale for Madison Prep: Madison's white school leadership has failed African American students so badly, it's time to step aside and let the Urban League and the black community take over African American education.
This argument fits into a larger national debate. The national school reform movement, which often pits low-income, minority families against teachers unions, has popularized a "no excuses" culture that dismisses the idea that poverty accounts for low achievement. That argument appeals to frustration with bureaucracy and to the ideal that sheer force of personality can overcome stasis and adversity. It has lost a bit of force recently, with research showing mixed results from charters, and education experts conceding that families still have more to do with children succeeding than teachers.
Still, the almost inhumanly energetic Kaleem Caire and his supporters tell a compelling story. Even opponents of Madison Prep have been so bowled over by Caire and the community he has galvanized with his dream, they are inclined to try to find a way to support him. That's why school board member Ed Hughes, though he voted no on Monday and has had many reservations - from cost to lack of oversight to violating the union contract - has proposed supporting a version of Madison Prep that opens a year later, when the existing union contract with Madison teachers has expired.
The board took quite a beating Monday night.
Madison Prep's Steven Perez didn't mince words, calling out Marj Passman by name, angrily reading aloud her supportive comments on a charter proposal developed by white people - Badger Rock - while rejecting one developed by people of color. The strong implication: Passman and her colleagues are racists. Lots of nodding heads to that one. Ouch.
Passman speaks passionately about her experience in a diverse public school when she was a child of immigrants growing up in New York. She testified against Gov. Scott Walker's statewide charter school plan last year, worrying that the plan would mean "those not chosen by lottery will return to the dying embers of our public school system."
"Public education is under fire," radical scholar and activist Allen Ruff testified. "There's a national offensive to gut public education for 20 years now and to channel public money into private or semi-private schools." Ruff named four foundations that have led this effort: Walton, Bradley, Broad and Gates.
"It's no coincidence that Kaleem Caire, throughout the course of his career, has received money from those foundations," Ruff added pointedly.
The ball is now in the district's court. Superintendent Dan Nerad is set to announce the district's own proposal to address the achievement gap.
In order for the schools to be effective, I believe Madison will need to start much earlier than the sixth grade, as Madison Prep does. It will also need to deal with poverty and somehow overcome the bitterness that will linger for a while after this week.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.