Common Council Debates New Charter School

Pros and cons of Rocketship discussed

By Michelle Meier

The Milwaukee Common Council voted “no” to send the Rocketship Charter School motion back to the Steering & Rules Committee on Nov. 2.

The motion authorizing the Rocketship Charter School to operate a Milwaukee Common Council charter school had a two-thirds “no” vote by the common council. Ten council members voted “no” and five voted “aye.”

According to Katie Ash, in an article on blended classes in Education Week, Rocketship Education is “an elementary charter school that serves more than 1,000 students at three different campuses in San Jose, California. At Rocketship, students spend part of the day in a traditional face-to-face classroom and part of the day in the Learning Lab, where they use computer software to improve their literacy and math skills.”

According to Sean Cavanagh, in an article on operational savings in Education Week, Rocketship Education is “a nonprofit operator of elementary charter schools in northern California that works with low-income communities…its model allows it to reallocate about $500,000 annually per school.”

Contrary to popular belief about charter schools, Rocketship charter schools “are hardly enclaves of privilege,” according to Peter W, Cookson Jr. in an article in Wilson Quarterly. “Ninety percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 75 percent speak English as a second language. With an explicit mission of closing the achievement gap, Rocketship has already seen two of its sites ranked among the 15 top-performing schools serving high-poverty areas in California.”

Common Council President and the alderman for the 15th District of Milwaukee, Willie Hines voted “no” to send the Rocketship motion back to committee. He said that the Common Council has already decided that it is okay with charter schools and that he “doesn’t want to change the system [of the charter school applications process] midstream…I don’t need the fanfare and that is what would happen if we were to send this back to committee.”

Nik Kovac, Milwaukee Alderman for the 3rd District, said “the Rocketship Charter School…is based out of California and is charging a 16 percent management fee, which is, I believe, double what Milwaukee School of Academics and Character is charging.” The Milwaukee School of Academics and Character is a group out of Chicago.

Kovac was one of the council members to vote “aye” to send the motion back to committee. He said that he wanted to allow more members of the public to ask more questions about it. Kovac said, “I was told that this is one of the most impressive charter applications we’ve had.”

Milwaukee Alderman for the 4th District, Bob Bauman, said, “I don’t see grounds to send this back to committee at this time.” According to Bauman, “there had been extensive review by the Charter School Review Committee prior to the presentation of these files to the council.” In reference to Kovac’s request to have more time for questions from the public, Bauman said, “I haven’t received a single call about this subject, pro or con, ever.”

On the contrary, Michael Murphy, the alderman for the 10th District of Milwaukee, said “I did receive several calls from citizens within my district subsequently to the vote of the Steering & Rules Committee.” Murphy was one out of the five council members who voted “aye” to send the Rocketship motion back to committee.

He said that people who called him were concerned about whether or not Rocketship had been accurately reporting their academic performance. Murphy said, “We have looked into that matter and in fact, their performance is what they have been indicating and their numbers are substantially higher than their counterparts in the community.”

Although Murphy commended the Rocketship Charter School’s remarkable success, he described how the situation is different by saying “it’s not the same thing in an urban area of Milwaukee.” He specifialy referred to the predominantly Latino group in California versus the African American group in Milwaukee. There are “not always the same issues,” he said. Murphy commented that he does not want to “rush to seek expansion [without] some sort of track record…I want to see the proof in the pudding that they do educate the kids better than what we see in other areas.”

Charter Ordinance

A substitute charter ordinance relating to the annual service retirement allowance for elected officials was vetoed by Mayor Tom Barrett on Oct. 21. The Milwaukee Common Council voted on whether or not they want to sustain the veto that would require council members and elected officials to contribute as part of their multiplier from 2.5 to 2 percent.

Hines said that he wanted the city attorney’s written opinion before overriding the veto to clarify the legalities of the matter. He said, “the best thing is to start from scratch…get our ducks in a row, [and] approach this responsibly.” He said Barrett wants to make council members give up the .5 percent whether it is legal or not.

Murphy said “by passing this, we’re taking a progressive step and making sure that…it would be passive for individuals for whether or not they want to sign a waiver for 2.5 to 2 [percent].”

The veto was sustained after only two out of the 15 members who voted “aye” to override the veto.

Entertainment Licensing

Milwaukee 5th District Alderman Jim Bohl said that a substitute ordinance relating to licensing procedures and standards for public entertainment premises “will present radical departure from the current format.” Bohl said he is trying to shoot for a more proactive approach with “planning on the part of operators of larger establishments which typically have adverse secondary effects.”

The new ordinance will be a preventative measure that puts more planning responsibility into entertainment venue operators’ hands to cut down on violations. Bohl explained that 400 to 500 patrons leave entertainment venues at closing time, which results in the adverse secondary effects of loud noises, screaming, and fighting in the surrounding neighborhoods. “The intent is to take a variety of current entertainment licenses, both alcohol-related entertainment and non-alcohol entertainment licenses, and combine them into one,” Bohl said.

Bohl commented that they will be looking for a more proactive plan dealing with the issues related to waiting lines, crowd control, smoking areas, off-street parking, clean up, security cameras, and the like. All 15 aldermen voted "aye" to the new ordinance.

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