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Cracks In Delaware's Charter School Movement

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Part of Town Square Delaware’s August Education Series

 

 

Personally, I am not a big fan of charter schools. However, I support school choice 100% and charter schools are good choices.

 

Currently, Delaware has 18 charter schools with only seven (38%) exceeding the standards.

 

Delaware’s charter school admission regulations allow charter schools to hold an admission test to help determine if a student meets the specific interest of the school. In some respects charter schools can exclude students by lack of academic success whereas traditional public schools cannot. Delaware’s governor raised concerns about that process resulting in the “skimming and creaming” of students.

 

Some critics feel charter schools are re-segregating schools, but with the choice factor I believe it’s wrong to suggest there is a re-segregation movement going on. But then again, with limited choices, high-risk students, of whom many are minorities, are forced together by default if they want to experience the charter school choice option.

 

Though the Delaware charter school law has been in existence since 1995, real objective studies as to what works and what does not have yet to be produced. One concern that is standing out is financial resources. Not only has the recession taken a toll on charter schools via state budget cuts and fewer financial contributions, ill-prepared charter school leaders and boards have helped to cause added financial stress.

 

The recent events at Reach and Pencader charter schools stem from poor fiscal management, compounded by poor community and school board oversight. The Delaware Department of Education also compounded the problem by not ensuring the required Citizen Budget Review Committees were in place. The committees are required via House Bill #119 passed by the state legislators in 2009 and signed by the governor. These recent events have the community and legislators questioning charter school finances and DEDOE’s ability to provide proper oversight and technical assistance.

 

Race to The Top, another federal save-all program, reduces the special flexibility charter schools were given. The charter school’s share of Race to The Top funding isn’t enough to sustain the program’s objectives, yet with state regulations, charter schools will be required to pull from their annual state allocations. In addition, Delaware adopted Common Core Standards that will also impact school spending.

 

One of the biggest expenses charter schools face is cost of building space. Charter schools only receive operational funding and not capital funding from the state and local taxes. Charter schools in the long run will be in better financial position by owning their own buildings. But if the state and local taxpayers fund charter school buildings there are no provisions giving taxpayers a stake in ownership in property. If a charter school “corporation” were to be forced to close or if the school decides to not exist as education provider, the real-estate paid for by the taxpayers goes with them.

 

Also, there is the question of capital referendums. Surely we can’t have charter schools holding referendums overlapping existing school district referenda. In order to provide charter schools with capital funding, the entire capital funding of public schools would need to change. Tax rates for the Vo-Tech schools are set by the legislators, but again, the taxpayers own the real-estate in those situations.

 

United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proclaims he is for “great charter schools” while others who are failing must be closed. It appears Delaware’s Governor is signing on to that ideology. However, with the Reach and Pencader crisis there are victims in the middle — students and parents.
The lack of uniform operational and financial transparency, compounded by increasing state and federal encroachment on local charter school decision-making, do have an impact on the health and direction of charter schools. One of the greatest dangers to charter schools and traditional Delaware public schools is the Delaware Department of Education’s partisan relationship to the political agenda of the governor. We often hear “it’s for the kids” but politics including labor concerns do get their way.

 

One real test for the Delaware Department of Education and the Governor’s commitment to real reform is the action taken against those within DEDOE responsible for ensuring charter schools have the Citizen Budget Oversight Committees in place. We have a system that wants to reward success and hold people accountable but the true test is having those in charge hold themselves accountable.

 

Holding a few high performing charter schools up as proof charter schools work in Delaware is dangerous and gives a false sense of overall success.
It’s time the so-called stakeholders in education join together and face reality — fractures exist in Delaware charter schools. Charter schools need their individuality. However, the foundation of education — traditional or charter — needs consistent uniformity in operational and financial transparency.
One big step forward would be all school districts and charter schools digitally record the public sessions of their board meeting and post the sound files online. The Red Clay and Christina School Districts currently provide public transparency at this level. Also, legislation just signed by the governor requires the Delaware State Board of Education to record their meetings effective September 2011.

 

Accountability must start at the top not the bottom.

 

John Allison has been involved in education issues since 1996, serving on various district and state level committees and PTA as president. John attended district, state , regional and national parent and education conferences and is an advocate for open government particularly in relationship to education. John has helped introduce and pass legislation for modification of the school board oath of office and requesting the state board of education meetings be digitally recorded and put online. He is the founder of Kilroy’s Delaware, started in 2006.

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