Who is Responsible for Our Schools?

You are not alone if you are a bit confused by the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission’s (WEIC) redistricting proposal and its tortuous consideration by the State School Board of Education.

The convoluted haggling (“may” vs. “shall”?) between two panels appointed by the same governor neatly illustrates factors that have long bedeviled our public schools and attempts to transform them: complex semi-measures instead of comprehensive reform, excessive bureaucracy, and an overall lack of political accountability.

WEIC would shift all students and schools in the city of Wilmington to the Red Clay School District. By doing away with the current, labyrinthine feeder patterns and consolidating responsibility for these largely poorer children and their struggling schools into one district from several, it is reasoned, their special needs will most effectively be met and student outcomes will improve.

Enhancing educational opportunities for our state’s most neglected communities is an absolute necessity — a goal we all share. WEIC has brought forward what they believe is a reasoned approach to an extremely difficult problem.

However, as we’ve seen, meaningfully addressing Wilmington’s educational problems cannot be an isolated exercise, nor can lasting improvements occur without an overarching strategy for organizing and funding our schools statewide.

Poor children with special needs don’t only live within Wilmington’s boundaries. Sadly, there are deep pockets of poverty in every county and corner of the state; low student and school performance doesn’t abide by any geographic or racial distinctions. Furthermore, all Delaware taxpayers share in the responsibility of funding public schools throughout the state, and as we have already seen, the WEIC proposal will be DOA without the long-term commitment of additional state funds.

Given its initial charge, WEIC’s makeup understandably has a predominant Wilmington orientation and it largely consists of education professionals and activists. But the panel includes no elected Republicans or anyone from Kent or Sussex, and scant representation of Red Clay parents, residents or the business community.

That would not surprisingly be of concern to taxpayers and families in Pike Creek and Hockessin wary of absorbing thousands of new students without many details for how it will all unfold and be funded – a clear takeaway from the public meetings I attended.

WEIC deserves credit for actually putting their stamp on specific recommendations. That’s a departure from many commissions that came before it. But while the plan’s centerpiece — consolidation of accountability for Wilmington schoolchildren — is an appealing concept, it is far from certain that folding city students into one district will result in more effective focus on their wellbeing, nor better results.

WEIC’s focus on district lines implicitly acknowledges but comes short of addressing a fundamental problem: the current system is not only costly and inefficient, but it obfuscates responsibility for results. So long as the organization of our schools is untethered to political accountability, it is near impossible to determine where the buck stops. (And in the category of murky accountability, one might also ask why a commission, instead of elected officials, has been given this thankless assignment to begin with.)

Our tiny state has 22 school districts, a sprawling Department of Education, the state board and commissions like WEIC. Would anyone conceive of this byzantine system if they could start from scratch? No!

None of this is WEIC’s fault or their problem, per se, but with all the time and resource going into consideration of their plan you have to wonder why we aren’t taking on bigger system-wide issues that affect every school in the state.

Everyone acknowledges we have an administrative-driven, top-down system that has made Delaware among the states that spend the most on education with the most disappointing outcomes.

However, no one wants the political pain that would come with an effort to consolidate the districts and shift tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars from administrators to teachers and children in the classrooms.

This is not to say that simplifying the structure alone is a cure-all, particularly when it comes to the serious challenges of impoverished children, which increasingly require support and services far beyond the three Rs.

But until we untangle the layers of bureaucracy that insulate elected leaders from responsibility and limit the authority of principals in overseeing their schools, we’re bound to keep treading water.

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  • I would like to be able to sit down with 3 students from each district in NCC. An honor student, an average student and a poorly performing student. See what they have to say about their schools. So far, the adults have not been able to fix anything. And, I have a lot more ideas.

  • Well said Michael. Your timing is excellent as we are in the midst of a circus campaign at many levels. Tax more, spend more, etc. Freeze govt. spending, eliminate the IRS, etc. What about reviewing from top to bottom what we are doing, why we are doing it, how much it is costing, is there a more effective and/or efficient way? Govt at every level needs more efficiency.

  • Well said Michael. The legacy of school busing from long rides,to less parental involvement, to increased costs and educational complexity and bureaucracy is that the city schools have re-segregated through charters and other factors. We no longer even have traditional neighborhoods where people know one another because so few of the children even attend the same schools where the parents are most likely to come into contact with each other in a common cause. The court order ended in the late 90’s but here we are nearly two decades later dealing with “feeder patterns” because no one wants to face up to it. And so many of our schools are deprived of top talent, both talented students and parents because they choose private or charter to avoid the problems and the cycle goes on and on.

  • Thanks Michael, I share your views. Simplify, decrease bureaucracy, free up more cash for the classroom, enable principals, involve parents. I’d add, don’t spend on or use technology to ignore or otherwise isolate kids under the name of customized education. Human relationships matter, including the child to the teacher.

  • Michael….the 22 school districts are Delaware’s “third rail” of politics. No one has the political courage to tackle this expensive bureaucracy.

    As to the WEIC/Markell plan, it has been a rush to the finish (perhaps because Gov. Markell’s time in office is coming to an end). I don’t believe the process for implementing this plan has been fully analyzed, let alone the end result.

    Thank you for your thoughtful article.