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.