A state request for proposals was published Tuesday that lays out a clear and detailed process for getting an independent charter school open for students to attend in Madison or Milwaukee as early as fall 2018 or fall 2019.

“I’m really excited,” said Gary Bennett, who was chosen in April 2016 to lead the new Office of Educational Opportunity at the University of Wisconsin System and has been developing a process for it since then.

The office, created by Republican legislators, has the ability to bypass local school boards and authorize independent charter schools in Madison and Milwaukee. Applications will be screened by Bennett’s office and then by a review committee that Bennett is still assembling, with proposals recommended for approval by Bennett, then moving to the UW Board of Regents for a final decision.

The first step in the process, according to a list of directions and documents available on a website through Bennett’s office, includes filling out a four-page prospectus with 12 questions for applicants to answer. Questions include what the proposed charter school’s mission is, what makes it different from existing public options and what success would like five years after it opens.

In April, Bennett told the Wisconsin State Journal he wanted to cast a wide net for possible ideas for independent charter schools, which under state law will have to be tuition-free and open to all students in the school district.

He also had planned to consult a variety of community voices in developing the request for proposals, including UW-Madison faculty members, state lawmakers, parents, organizations and other experts to develop criteria.

On Wednesday, he said he’d done just that, singling out UW-Madison professor Julie Mead, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis who has done research on charter schools, as being particularly helpful in the process of developing the request for proposals (RFP).

He described Mead as having a “healthy skepticism” about charters and said her input was helpful in determining what sort of questions should be included in the RFP.

“Her feedback has been really instrumental on what’s controllable within the (school) model,” he said. “Getting feedback from both supporters and critics of charters has improved the RFP and will continue to improve this office.”

Students who leave public schools to attend independent charter schools effectively take their state tax dollars with them.

Bennett wouldn’t share any ideas he’s been pitched for schools in Madison so far, though he acknowledged being approached by many groups and individuals with ideas over the past year as he developed the RFP process.

He said reviewing a completed application would be the only way he could decide what might be viable to try.

“I won’t know until people put pen to paper,” Bennett said. “We’ll see who translates cautious optimism (about their idea) into actuality. Whether they’re a quality application or not has yet to be determined.”

Charters schools that are authorized through Bennett’s office will have a five-year contract to operate.

“It really is (designed to be) an incubator,” Bennett said of his office. “If (a new charter school) works, fold it into the school district after five years. If it doesn’t, close it.”

Bennett also pledged his office would soon have a real-time, public spreadsheet available on its website of charter proposals, showing who had applied for charter schools and what stage of the process the application is in.

“It might chill some applications (to have the information public), but it’s an important part of keeping this office open and keeping the public informed,” Bennett said.


Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.