For nearly two generations now, there can hardly have been a matter of public interest in Delaware that has provoked more sustained and passionate debate than public education.
And rightly so.
What could be more important to any state or a people? At its essence are the hopes and dreams for our children and society’s future. From a financial standpoint, borrowing Vice President Joe Biden’s dictum that a budget evidences one’s priorities, education is Delaware’s most important by a long shot.
A third of our state’s 2014 $3.8 billion budget is spent on schools. By that standard alone it should be the job we do best.
Yet, for all the money we spend — and obtaining a clear picture of the federal, state and local funds coursing through the system can be a frustrating, unsatisfying exercise – it is safe to say there is a general dissatisfaction with our results. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone who is genuinely happy with the systemic status quo, particularly when it comes to the education of poorer children. Sadly, we haggle over the “successes” themselves; one guy’s wins are another’s anomalies or proof of inequity.
We certainly see this tension at play in the ongoing showdown between Governor Markell and two school districts over his proposal to transform six struggling schools in Wilmington as well as the recent challenge to charter schools by the ACLU and others.
Several key drivers lay at the heart of these conflicts.
First is a lack of agreement among parents, educators, policymakers and other stakeholders on how to most fairly and effectively measure the outputs of our education system, considering the complicating social and economic factors involved.
With no consensus on how we track performance of students, teachers and administrators running the schools, there can’t be much solidarity on the strategies and practices by which great results are best achieved.
One-size-fits-all tests are a clunky way to measure human performance – and they clearly should not be the only way we do so in schools. So it is understandable that many teachers vigorously contests their fairness and efficacy in judging their competence as instructors. But apparently not all standardized evaluations are created equal; when a new rating system showed virtually no Delaware teacher “needs improvement,” the chief lobbyist for the group representing education employees embraced those results as “terrific.”
The outsized influence of that organization – formally known as the Delaware State Education Association, or DSEA – reflects another key element in the Delaware schools debate: a sprawling educational superstructure that is dominated by professional activists.
Few probably wield more power in Dover than DSEA. Given the financial stakes at play and the sheer number of members – the DSEA represents 12,000 public school employees, 8,000 of whom are teachers[i] — it makes sense they would be a political juggernaut. They are skilled at what they do, which is advocating on behalf of their membership and encouraging politicians to support their agenda. This kind of activity is in the greatest traditions of our republic, but one has to ask if it is a healthy thing for an organization representing public employees to hold so much sway. And as with any other special interests wielding disproportionate influence, theirs comes with a cost.[ii]
The general reluctance of politicians to advance significant reforms is a good example. That a popular governor elected to his second term in a landslide is seeing such heated opposition within his own party to a relatively limited proposal shows how difficult it can be to shake things up.
Another price is the crowding out of citizen and parent voices in the direction of our schools. There are few counterweights to an organization with the kind of resources that can make or break a candidate for the legislature or the school board, which, in the case of my local district, the DSEA effectively controls with their own members.
The more complex a system becomes, the more power accrues to well-organized institutional players. And with an unwieldy 19 district structure, growing vo-tech and charter schools, a few hundred Department of Education staff and countless commissions over the years, it’s no wonder many regular citizens feel the schools debate has left them behind.
And when their voice is heard, it often does not jibe with the education insiders’ company line. In the case of both charter schools and the governor’s “priority” plan, many outside the education world are baffled by what they see as consistent opposition to meaningful change and a lack of urgency in addressing obvious deficiencies.[iii]
Another driver of the schools debate: it’s personal. We’ve all spent a good chunk of our lives in classrooms and all of us pay taxes to keep these public institutions running. And everyone appreciates how important the quality of schools can be for the reputation of a community or even state.
It doesn’t take a PhD to know that kids from strong, loving families in good neighborhoods have distinct advantages over children who do not. Our experience and common sense tell us that small classes, inspiring and motivated teachers, and safe, nurturing environments – the closer to home the better – will produce the best results.
Following the 1978 federal court-ordered reconstruction of the New Castle County school districts, the search for these basics led many Delawareans to opt out of the traditional public school system for private alternatives, newly-formed charters — or even to go north across the state line. Delaware has a long tradition of strong independent and religious schools but private school rolls ballooned through the ’80s and ’90s, making Delaware first among all states in percentage of students in non-public schools.[iv]
My personal history is fairly representative of not a few New Castle Countians of my era. As a child in the 1970s, I happily attended the neighborhood elementary school until my parents chose to send me to parochial school rather than be bused into an unfamiliar setting in Wilmington for junior high.[v] Seeing a once-thriving suburban network of schools dismantled – with no apparent benefit for kids or communities in either the city or the suburbs – left an indelible impression on many who lived through the experience.
Certainly, a vestige of that era is the decision by so many of our top elected and judicial officials, educators and school reformers and business leaders to send their own children to private or charter schools.[vi]
Indeed, for many in northern Delaware, the busing/desegregation experiment is the defining catalyst for today’s discussion about schools. And it underlines likely another crucial reason why our schools debate can be so sensitive and contentious: education is inevitably knotted up in enduring issues of poverty and race.
These are challenges of historic proportion and carrying significant national weight, and the operation of our public school system has been and continues to be a principle arena for their tortuous grappling.
The Path Forward
Despite this frustrating history, there is a palpable feeling the journey of our ‘education debate’ has turned an important, even promising corner. Editorial pages are filled with increasingly pointed, specific and candid identification of problems and recommendations to fix them. Proposals like the governor’s priority schools plan are forcing parties to the table, compelling a public dialogue on issues previously too politically hot to take on.
The airing of real disagreements can only lead to continued improvements in educational opportunities for all Delaware children. In any event, market forces – parents and communities insisting on immediate reforms, and a world economy that is rapidly transforming what a superior modern education requires – are shaking the grip of education insiders protective of the status quo while confounding traditional roles of various interested parties.
For example, both the lawsuit claiming that the growth of charter schools has resulted in de facto re-segregation as well as the state’s move to close certain underperforming charters are met on the other side by African American parents and in one case the City of Wilmington government, adamant that charters have been a welcome beacon of hope for their children and neighborhoods.[vii] Even struggling charter schools have offered these families a cherished sense of security and accountability they did not find in the traditional public system.
Organizations overburdened by sprawling bureaucracies inevitably come to the service of that infrastructure, instead of vice versa. Delaware’s excessive, convoluted state and district education system can only inhibit the ability of schools to be innovative in providing tailored educational experiences for communities and individuals.
More leaders appear to be willing to challenge this antiquated operating model. Attorney General Matt Denn recently acknowledging that layers of administrative overhead are preventing more funds getting directly to students in the classroom. [viii] And Chief Justice Leo Strine has assessed, the “school district structure … was designed nearly forty years ago for very different purposes and that leaves too many … in an unfair situation.”
What would our educational system look like if we started from scratch? Few could envision 19 school districts. Critical thinking, problem-solving skills and the teaching of basic facts about our world will never cease to be a core purpose. But we must organize and fund our schools in a way that provides flexibility and accountability for individual schools and their personnel to deliver on that principle in the best way possible for the students in that building. That will necessarily demand greater involvement and ownership by local communities. And it will require transparency in the setting and attainment of objectives, so all taxpayers have confidence their funds are being used most effectively and families have the choice to vote with their feet if a school does not meet their expectations.
As for the governor’s priority plan, it may not be perfect or perfectly fair, but it has spurred an overdue, pointed dialogue and that is itself of value.[ix]
Ultimately, though, that value will be severely limited unless the debate moves beyond the details of specific proposals and comes to be framed around one agreed, undisputable goal: making our schools the very best in the country.
[ii] Although some might question how healthy it is to have the strongest lobbying organization in the state one that is representing public employees
[iii]News coverage and public meetings regularly feature this perspective. See, for example, “Now is the time to fix our schools,” (calling for “urgency to act now”) authored by five community leaders. News Journal, September 28, 2014.
[iv] Delaware still ranks second in the nation in non-public school enrollment. In Delaware (specifically, New Castle County) and across the country, private school enrollment is down since the onset of the 2008 recession. Certainly, economics are a major driver of this trend; the cost of operating private schools – in particular, the parochial schools once staffed by nuns and clergy — has gone up, and family budgets have gotten tighter.
[v] The school I attended, Old Mill Lane in Brandywine Hundred, was a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility opened in 1967 to accommodate booming suburban family growth. By the late 1980s it was shuttered and sat vacant until it was ultimately razed. Today it is the site of a softball park. Other elementary schools in what became the Brandywine School District that met similar fates include Silverside, River Road, Foulk and AI du Pont. Demographic changes in New Castle County have seen younger families increasingly gravitate to Hockessin and the southern part of the county including Bear, Middletown/Odessa/Townsend while the population in Brandywine Hundred has gotten older (the entire state is getting older, trending to being among the top ten oldest in the country in the coming years). It is hard to know to what extent growth in the newer suburbs – and the new local school construction attending it – are tied to the extended period of uncertainty and even turmoil over public schools in northern NCCo neighborhoods.
[vi] My wife and I have chosen, thus far, to have our children attend private schools
[vii] Curiously, and perhaps par for the course in the convoluted debate, in November 2014 the City of Wilmington joined a lawsuit to keep Moyer Academy Charter School open, only to have the City Council vote to ban the expansion of charters in the city two months later.
[viii] From a May, 2014, Wilmington Rotary Club speech by Lt. Governor Matt Denn: “Finally, perhaps the most important question: how are we going to pay for all these things I said we should do? Part of the answer has to be making a conscious effort to move dollars out of our district offices, and into our schools. This is an area where we still do poorly compared to other states, and our performance worsened from 2001 through 2010. Our state’s district level administrative staff increased by 39.2% during that period of time, compared to the national number of 12.1%. We have been increasing the number of district-level administrators per student in Delaware since 2001 at the same time that the nation has been decreasing the number of district level administrators per student.”
[ix] It is also based on what has proven successful elsewhere. As the New York Times recently editorialized, a similar effort by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg “improved graduation rates and college acceptances in poor neighborhoods by shutting down schools that were essentially dropout factories and starting afresh with smaller schools, new teachers and new leadership.”