In a recent article for Town Square Delaware, I examined one of the malaises strangling the Delaware economy, namely, that young, talented workers flee the state for brighter horizons elsewhere in the country. The state of Delaware has not adequately wooed these workers. Furthermore, it would be a mistake to concentrate the wooing process on adults alone; investments—rather, smarter investments—in Delaware’s school system are necessary to promote long-term economic growth, and to create an atmosphere which attracts, rather than repels, the skilled young workers who will drive the state’s economy.
Ironically, the ostensible improvements in Delaware’s education system have received a plethora of attention from both the news media and the Markell administration. Delaware finished first out of about 40 states in the Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition, allowing Delaware to receive funding for its stated goals, which include, among others, “providing deep support to the state’s lowest achieving schools,” and “elevating the education profession.” This should be terrific news for much of the state; these aims are noble and worthwhile.
But Delaware’s Achilles’ heel with education has long been that it spends piles of money—to minimal success. In this study, Delaware was ranked 37th out of 39 states for which data was available in terms of “education efficiency”. Essentially, First State residents get less “bang for their buck” than residents of other states.
Instead of merely spending more money on education, Delaware must find ways to spend money in smarter, more innovative ways, so as to achieve real results beyond merely qualifying for extra funds to throw at problems (A quick aside: In this informative Washington Post article, the author states that “no one factor was decisive for Tennessee [the other winner] and Delaware, but it was apparent that buy-in from teachers’ unions and other key stakeholders was important. Florida and Louisiana, which had been favored to win but fell short, did not have broad union support.” But that is an issue better left for another day.)
In this piece, and in subsequent pieces, I will suggest ways in which Delaware might improve its education system, and thereby, increase its long-term economic potential. My first suggestion is a quiet, but likely controversial one: Provide major capital funding to charter schools.
Governor Markell recently signed a bill into law which equalized minor capital funding for charter schools, and created a performance fund for high-performing charter schools. In terms of treatment of charter schools, this is a step in the right direction, but by no means does this level the playing field between charter schools and ordinary public schools.
I am biased—I recently graduated from the Charter School of Wilmington, which is the state’s highest performing charter school, and indeed, probably the state’s highest performing school of any kind, private schools included. And yet, despite my school’s success, for four years I watched our school’s leadership fundraise tirelessly, applying for grant after grant from outside organizations. Despite being the state’s highest performing school, the Charter School of Wilmington did not have access to the capital funding that underperforming schools (and there are many of these) eagerly gobbled up. Despite being the state’s highest performing school, the Charter School of Wilmington exists in the old, past-its-prime Wilmington High School building, a building in need of substantial renovations. The Charter School of Wilmington is the state’s best school not because of its substantial funds, but despite its lack thereof. This school is proof that money does not necessarily lead to success in the educational world, but that success may be found without money. It is the state’s educational crown jewel, and yet it goes against everything the state has stood for in terms of education spending.
The time has come for Delaware to reward its top-performing schools. I am not necessarily arguing for financially equal treatment of public and charter schools. But for charter schools that have demonstrated a consistent record of success—such as the Charter School of Wilmington—the state should open the door to more capital funding sources.
There are many holes in Delaware’s education system. The solutions will not come overnight, nor is this remotely the only solution. Delaware’s economic future depends on its ability to attract and retain skilled young workers. The state’s current practice of handing heaps of money to underperforming schools is not an adequate strategy to advance this aim. It might be time to reward the top schools as well.