Advocates debate ‘bribery’ ban’s impact on Wisconsin charter schools

By Bre Payton | Watchdog.org

BRIBERY?: Should charter schools be restricted from giving money or gifts to parents for word of mouth referrals?

Is it wrong for charter schools to boost enrollment numbers by giving parents money anytime they refer a new student to the school?

The Common Council of Milwaukee thinks so, and if the mayor signs an ordinance, the practice of charter schools giving cash in exchange for referrals, which some have called “bribery,” will be banned.

However, advocates are concerned the ban is too broad, and could have a negative effect on the schools.

The ordinance banning the practice reads:

“No charter school shall offer money or any other thing of pecuniary value to a parent, student, teacher, staff member or any other person as an incentive for recruiting a student to enroll at a charter school.”

Because the term “pecuniary value” isn’t defined, the phrase could be interpreted to restrict charters from giving away school uniforms to new students, or put an end to local community nights, said Sean Roberts, executive director of Milwaukee Charter School Advocates.

“Are pens with the school logo not allowed now?” he asked.

Roberts also said the group was “working to get clarification” on the ordinance.

In a letter submitted to the council, the group pointed out the money traditional schools spend on recruiting students:

“Milwaukee Public Schools’ media and community outreach budget in 2014 was just over $1 million, and it has spent more than $300,000 in the past 3 years on advertisements alone. Independent charter schools, which are inequitably funded compared to district schools, simply cannot afford that kind of campaign.”

This legislation banning incentivized referrals was drafted after Urban Day School in Milwaukee offered $100 to parents and teachers who got a student to enroll by the state’s official head count date. The head count date is significant to schools because they are paid by the state on a per-pupil basis.

Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, said in a blog post the school ought to be “ashamed.”

Others argue incentivizing referrals may not be such a bad thing.

“Until we can ensure that all parents care about their children’s education — without any financial motivation — we may have to resort to incentives like this one,” said Nick Novack, communications director at the MacIver Institute. “If $100 in cash gets parents to invest time in their children’s future, it may not be such a bad thing.”

“(Giving) a small thank you for word of mouth referrals is perfectly acceptable,” Robertson said.

It’s uncertain whether or not the practice of incentivizing referrals is more widespread. Neither the National Education Association, the national affiliate of the MTEA, nor the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools had heard of the practice happening elsewhere.

However, the Common Council of Milwaukee urged that a statewide ban be enacted.

Perhaps enrollment incentives will occur more often as the demand for charters increases while the funding lags behind.

Bre can be reached at bpayton@watchdog.org, or follow her on Twitter @Bre_payton.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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