Former Legislator Dennis Conta

Why Charter Schools? An Interview with Former Legislator Dennis Conta

By Patricia Obletz, Editor

“I wasn’t drawn to charter schools as much as I was drawn to the opportunity to equip students for a productive future,” Dennis Conta told me mid-January 2018. This former Wisconsin State Representative established Conta & Associates, Inc. in 1979 to provide management and consulting services for the Development of Public Charter Schools, Governmental Relations, and Public Policy Studies. Although he retired in 2014, he continues to pursue a more relevant and effective education for children living in poverty.

Education for children in poverty riveted Conta’s attention when he wrote a paper while earning a degree in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School, 1967–68. He followed that accomplishment by winning a seat in the Wisconsin Legislature intending, among other policy initiatives, to help children get an education that prepares them for the future.

Chapter 220 and Public Aid to Private Schools

As a legislator, Conta piloted Chapter 220 which, over the years*, has made it possible for low-income students to attend surrounding suburban schools in order to pursue their education in a more integrated school district. “Tens of thousands of students have used that program since it was created in 1975,” Conta said.

Asked about the effectiveness of the integration of black and white students, Conta said, “There is no data available about the nature and quality of integrated relationships that developed between students. Although my argument for doing this included integration, I was more concerned with taking children living in lower income neighborhoods in poverty and moving them into an environment where they might receive a stronger and more effective academic experience.

Conta said that, after a presentation he gave, an African American came up to him and said he owed Conta a great deal: his daughter went from a school in Milwaukee to Whitefish Bay High School to medical school and became a physician. “He said, ‘I don’t think any of that would have happened without Chapter 220 and the opportunity it gave her.’”

The voucher school system enabled public aid to private and parochial schools, which Conta opposes. He said, “I almost lost an election because of it. The Catholic Church came against me the second time I ran for the Assembly . . . they mobilized all the Catholic Churches in my district and almost defeated me because I was opposing public aid to private schools.” He paused before continuing: “I don’t think the Catholic Church as an institution would be surviving today if it wasn’t for that voucher program.

“Public aid to charter schools is a different matter than public aid to religious schools through the voucher school program. That’s a very different concept. There are many voucher programs that are simply run by people who can create a school, and bring very little skill and experience into the administration of the school. Some of them are good, a good number them bad.”

As an urban affairs consultant after leaving the Wisconsin Assembly in 1976, and through the 1980s, Conta never stopped thinking about the need to provide non-traditional educational opportunities to impoverished children. His 1968 thesis at the Kennedy School, “In Defense of the High School Dropout,” focuses on helping students who drop out of school to secure more meaningful employment by offering them vocational school courses and certificates. Conta said, “Rather than forcing them through a general curriculum and into a college that they’re not prepared for, we have this wealth of community colleges and vocational schools.”

In the 1990s, Conta finalized his thesis and started to pitch his plan, which led to his involvement with charter schools. Armed with his written proposal to provide students with easy access into the Milwaukee Area Technical College, providing some basic remedial skills training, if needed, Conta proposed his program to Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the Public Policy Forum, and the Milwaukee Area Technical College. He got nowhere.

Then he learned that Microsoft Bill Gates had given a lot of money in Milwaukee to develop charter schools.

Conta met with the Milwaukee Gates’ grants’ team, Danny Goldberg and [[ Dan Grego , also executive director of the Shalom High School and Trans Center for Youth. They awarded Conta “a large grant to develop the concept — if I could find an administrator who could incorporate the concept into a school system.”

Investigating school systems led Conta to Marsha Spector, executive director of Seeds of Health charter schools with five locations in Milwaukee. The board of directors accepted Conta’s proposal and he spent the next two years helping them persuade Milwaukee Area Technical College to sign on. They succeeded in 2005, opening the doors of Tenor High School charter school across from Cathedral Square in a building leased by Conta & Associates from St. John’s Cathedral.

Tenor High School

Politics and Public School Funding

Asked why property taxes weren’t divided up by the number of school districts and evenly distributed for equal educational opportunities, Conta said that “All the states in the country distribute moneys to school districts throughout the state. And every state has a different formula for doing so. The formulas are very, very complicated in Wisconsin.

“Every part of Wisconsin that has a school district receives state aid for that district. The distribution of the aid is a very contentious conflict between legislators. Each legislator is trying to get the most money he or she can possibly get for their school district. It’s a political issue based on the size of the district, the wealth of the district, and the spending patterns of the district. Very complicated.

WI Gov. Patrick Lucy AP Photo

“When I was in the legislature and Pat Lucy was governor, he was very troubled about the fact that wealthy school districts were getting far more money than poorer school districts. Now, even if the state did nothing for wealthy school districts, they had such a large tax base that they could budget for experienced teachers, unlike school districts that receive public moneys from a lower tax base. So he came up with—and I was very involved as an author of the bill—a radical plan, which was the first of its kind in the country.

“I was a legislator in 1973 and the program, which was viewed as progressive reform for some people, but infamous for others, was called Negative A’s. And what the legislature proposed, which was made into law, is that districts – take Whitefish bay, for example – would not only get no state aide because they’re so wealthy – they would have to raise their property tax, return it to the State of Wisconsin, and that would be redistributed to poorer school districts.

“Negative A’s was a powerful effort to create more equality between wealthy school districts and poorer school districts. It passed the legislature, it became law. Whitefish Bay and other wealthy school districts went to court and tested the constitutionality of the law. And the court ruled against it 4–3 and it was dissolved. So that’s the closest the State of Wisconsin got to creating large equity.

“It’s better now than it has been in the past, but wealthy school districts because of their wealth are simply going to benefit more from more money. They may get less aid from the state, but when it’s combined with their property tax base, they easily spend more money than the City of Milwaukee, for instance.

We talked about the need for adequate education for children, whatever their financial and physical status. And the fact that charter schools have the right to take a student’s tuition and keep it, even when they expel that child a few weeks after enrollment. Those children are deprived of necessary special needs services until the following September. Their welfare needs to be the bottom line. Conta said, “Well it’s the bottom line for legislators who represent such districts on one hand, or who have a moral concern. But not every legislator represents a poor school district, and not every legislator views this as a moral issue. They feel differently about it because they don’t quite understand the conditions of poverty that produce children in great need.

“They just don’t come from those communities. They think of their own districts…“ He shook his head.

“They ignore the cost of taking care of people who are not properly educated and whose health is ignored until the ER becomes necessary. In the long run, we end up paying more money for putting people in prisons and putting people on welfare programs because they can’t support themselves. We support high unemployment because there’s no adequate training. And all of that leads to a greater burden.

A Marshall Plan for Education

“If I was a czar and I could create the most advantageous school system, it would have a large, massive Marshall Plan, if you will. We’d begin to address the children’s needs, not only when they’re born, but even prenatal care, for instance.

“Prenatal care leading to immediate vast amounts of care for a child as he or she grows up and then immediately giving them the amount of money necessary to go to the finest head start programs with the finest teachers. Very expensive, but very necessary. And cheaper than caring for non-functioning adults.

“Early childhood programs are so crucial. Hillary Clinton placed a great emphasis on the need for early childhood intervention because, if it doesn’t take place, the damage that’s done by poor parents, single mothers who are 16–17 years old, the violent neighborhoods, poor peer relationships . . . By the time that poor (child) enters kindergarten, he or she has been so badly treated— and traumatized, that at some point and no matter how much we try to do at that point, so much has been lost in those first five years. That’s a critical period.

“Charter schools are not the answer, by any means, but in my opinion they’re part of the answer. They can provide some support to some children under certain circumstances that make a difference. When I left the charter school advocacy program, we had 17 independent charters in Milwaukee. They were chartered either by MPS, Milwaukee Public Schools, which has some of their own charter schools with UWM, or by the City of Milwaukee.

“I headed up a group called The Milwaukee Charter School Advocates. So I know something about these schools. About a third of them were among the very best schools that you would find in the state. The middle third were no better, no worse than an average Milwaukee public school. The bottom third were just as bad as some of the worst.

“Our job was to take the charter away from those schools that were performing poorly, and we must have de-chartered four or five of them when I was active. The only difference, incidentally, between a public school and a charter school is the governance of it. A charter school is run by a group of men and women who make up a board**. That board supervises the school, hires the principal, and that school, however, is responsible for the same graduation requirements as a MPS school. They have to take the same courses, take the same tests, and in order to graduate, satisfy the same requirements. Unlike a voucher program, for which those requirements don’t exist.”

To the point that charter schools don’t need accredited teachers, Conta replied, “So the argument would be, well the board of that charter school, those men and women from the community who make up the board, they are responsible to make certain that a teacher, certified or not, satisfies the standards of the school. So they’re held accountable for teacher performance.

“Another advantage that charter schools have is that they don’t have to follow the same nine-month school pattern of public schools.” Conta said. “They can have a 12-month program, like the one at Tenor High School, which has three 12-month curriculums. By the time a student graduated as a junior, he or she had already satisfied all their graduation requirements, and then through my program, they would go immediately to Milwaukee Area Technical College, MATC. They’d spend their senior year getting a certificate. We’d also have raised some money for some students to attend a fifth year at MATC and get an associate degree. That goes all the way back to my initial plan when I was doing the thesis. I wanted these young men and women to graduate from a community college with an associate degree. A two-year degree, not just a certificate.

Continuity, Unions and Partial Victory

“Other than that, I can’t make a defense that charter schools ought to replace all public schools. If I was a young man, you know, for instance, I wouldn’t be involved in a charter school; I’d be running for the Milwaukee School Board, which I thought about doing at one time. Because there’s a great need. We’ve got 50,000–60,000 children left in MPS.

“But only the Detroit school system has worse third grade and eighth grade reading and math scores than the Milwaukee Public School system . . . I’ve been supported by unions all my life, but I don’t think the unions that represented teachers and gave them automatic tenure after three years was a good idea.

“After tenure, there’s not much the union can do other than move them all around and bump people.

“I think the unions tolerated too much incompetency on the part of some teachers. They protected teachers that were not adequate. I don’t blame the unions. To hold a teacher responsible for a student who enters kindergarten so badly damaged is complicated. A teacher begins in September with 40 students. By the end of the school year, half of those students are gone. A new bunch of students have come in.

“The mobility rate among poor families is so large that some of these students are moving two-three times a year. They begin in School A, three months later they’re still in 5th grade, but they’re now in a second school. So how can you hold a teacher responsible when these kids are coming in and out of the classroom?

“It goes back to governance. But the mobility problem is so bad that, at one point, I made the suggestion that we ought to bus students back into the school that they came from. So if you’re at School A and you move to a different neighborhood and you have to go to School B, you should bus that student if they wish to go back to School A. So even though they’re bused, not the best of all ideas, but if they remain in the same school, they at least have continuity.

“But we don’t do that. We bus them and bus them and bus them, they go to—by the time some of those poor kids graduate, you know, they’ve been to a dozen schools all over. Poor people—that’s what poor people do, they move. They get evicted.”

To the statement that tax dollars should stay in public schools to ensure that children with a variety of disabilities can receive a meaningful education in light of so many kids accepted by charter schools are expelled soon after enrollment, and lose special needs services funding for the rest of the year, Conta said he didn’t fully understand it, either.

”We just share different values,” Conta said. “If you came up with a Republican profile, someone who sees himself or herself as a Republican, they tend to be the kind of people who have grown up in very stable environments, they’ve had the support systems necessary in order to be independent, be self-sufficient finally, they’ve had a lot of support and encouragement, and therefore they ask themselves, why can’t others do what I was able to do? Or, why must we create welfare programs that make people dependent and take away their initiative and individuality? We kind of force dependency on them and so all of their efforts—you know, they have a responsibility which they don’t exercise because they’re now dependent upon public welfare. They just see this world differently.

“I believe in partial victories. You know, we gained some momentum. We have to be contented with partial victories, otherwise we fall into despair.

“But I’m very confident that in 2020, two groups of people in particular are going to make a major difference: women who are now engaged more than ever before, and African Americans. The Alabama win. I’m confident, but we need to recognize and honor those populations with responsibility and positions and support, no doubt about it. we can’t take it for granted. So I’m very hopeful.”

*The State of Wisconsin 2015–17 biennial budget started the phase out of the Chapter 220 program by not allowing new students into the program after the 2014–15 school year. Students enrolled in the program in the 2014–15 school year were allowed to continue the program in the 2016–17 school year.

**Charter schools are privately run academies funded by the taxpayer. Many are governed by larger corporations, known as CMOs. Some are for-profit; others are not for profit yet still present financial “opportunities.”

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on February 28, 2018

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