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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

If college athletic recruiters can't do this . . .

. . . why can a charter school?
For Milwaukee students with good grades in search of a high school for the fall, the Wisconsin Career Academy offers a special little perk: a $100 gift card for those arriving with at least a 3.5 grade point average; $50 for students with at least a 3.25 GPA; and, for those with a 2.5 or better, a school T-shirt or sweat shirt.

The controversial strategy, which School District officials say might violate policies, speaks to the competitive landscape in Milwaukee when it comes to recruiting students, a landscape where schools of all stripes are much more likely to send out mailings or set up booths at fairs than they were even five years ago. It also points to a more high-stakes testing culture, where school officials see the benefit of signing up motivated students who will score better.

"We are trying to attract better students, and more students," said Tarik Celik, the school's principal. "Every year, Milwaukee is losing more than 2,000 students, and, as a charter school on the south side, it's hard."

He points out that the school no longer offers yellow bus service because of budget cuts and will not be able to provide bus passes in the fall. "You have to offer some sort of incentive," he said.
Um . . . shouldn't the incentive be the quality of your program?

The Wisconsin Career Academy shared space in my school's building for a couple of years back when they were starting. We used to refer to it as the "sit down-shut up" school, since that seemed to be the extent of the teaching that went on there. I imagine things have picked up for them by now--I don't know where they are in the five-year charter review process--but if they aren't creating buzz on the strength of their academic offerings, then artificial attempts to boost their numbers and scores are just that--phony.

One thing that distinguishes education from other enterprises--anything that makes widgets, for example--is that there is very little that educators and schools can do to control their raw materials. (See "The Blueberry Story" for example.) Even those (like occasional interlocutor Paul Noonan) who believe that "the K-12 system [should] more closely reflect the college/university system" forget that at the post-secondary level, too, schools can pick and choose whom they teach.

That doesn't happen in the public schools, even in a system like MPS where parents have a choice among all 200+ programs. Parents have the choice, not schools. A few schools with waiting lists--Rufus King, for example--get some choice, but they still must accept neighborhood and special education students and they are expected to teach them just as well as those who gain early admission through testing.

Wisconsin Career Academy is trying to upset the system in ways that, as district officials in the story indicate, may be illegal. Cash payouts to (presumably) easy-to-teach students turns the notion of "choice" upside-down, and it needs to be stopped. Now.

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