This is the fourth and final installment of a four-part series examining Delaware’s economic and social challenges and opportunities to secure the state’s future. Read the complete first, second and third installments here, as well as a condensed version in today’s The News Journal.
Education is by far the largest single expense in the state budget and like the rest of state government it is also begging for structural overhaul. For starters, there is Auditor Tom Wagner’s now 4-year-old dust-gathering report demonstrating there’s at least $50 million in low-hanging dollars to be saved by consolidating some of the state’s 19 current school districts. The efficiencies to be gained and redundancies eliminated in the sprawling educational-industrial complex are low hanging but forbidden fruit thanks to the clout of education industry lobbyists in Dover and their political handmaidens.
Insisting on operational excellence in our publicly funded schools is about much more than prudent financial management, it is inextricably tied to the moral imperative of ensuring funds are most directly and effectively invested in providing our children with a world-class education.
Bureaucratic overload inhibits our ability to put our schools on the cutting edge of educational innovation by piloting new models of pedagogy and training across the state. At a time when our schools are doing so poorly, despite hundreds of millions in state and federal funds, everything should be on the table. Curriculums, calendar, the physical idea of school itself. Our schools need – and our school children and our great teachers deserve – a big-time shakeup, not the same old incremental “reform” educational insiders have been pushing at a snail’s pace for decades. Cosmetic changes around the edges will simply not do for an institution – next to our national security apparatus, arguably the most important in our lives – that has by every measure so consistently produced middling to poor outcomes. It is unacceptable. We cannot continue to tinker around the edges.
This means more than just ramping up STEM curriculums or relying on a few good charter schools to pull along state test scores. If our leaders were interested in transformational reform, they would bring in a Michelle Rhee-like iconoclast to lay out a multi-pronged pathway for making our schools internationally-recognized for excellence: the best in math and science, liberal arts, vo-tech training, and partnerships to cultivate special skills closely tied to burgeoning Delaware employers. Make our small size an advantage by aggressively piloting a range of new approaches that have shown success in other markets.
At this point, it is all-too clear that many educational players are intent on preserving the status quo. They appear strangely content with producing results that do little to make our state a hive of economic opportunity and innovation. Look at the chilly reaction to the Teach for America program and the consistent, organized resistance to efforts aimed at increasing accountability and tying pay to performance instead of just tenure.
We have an exceptional opportunity to think big and reimagine how a state can transform its schools to make them the pride of the nation. To do so, we have to cast off the institutional barriers and antiquated mindsets that are holding our children and our state back.
Implicit and embedded in the fabric of all these reforms – overhauling our government, focusing on smarter growth and development policies, transforming our schools – is the reality that our state’s future relies not so much on an economic development strategy, but a “keep and attract young people here” strategy.
While every job secured from a relocating company is commendable and certainly life-sustaining for the individuals and family benefiting, it feels like we spend too much of our economic development efforts focused on bringing in suburban office-park jobs and far too little on nurturing the elements of a community that will appeal to the young people and entrepreneurs who will build the economic engines and superhighways that will take us well into the 21st century. Look at any thriving city in our country – from Durham, NC to Austin, TX to Palo Alto, to Cambridge, MA – and you will see a culture dominated by young people.
You will also likely see a research-based university. We should be doing everything possible to ensure the top talent graduating from the University of Delaware has ample incentive and opportunity to stay and build their careers here.
Naturally, there’s no one in our state who would say they don’t want us to be the best we can possibly be. There is no intentional, concerted effort underway to hold Delaware back. But Delaware has become a captive state of the status quo. After years of get-along make-doism, a mindset of mediocrity seems to have taken comfortable hold with far too many of our leaders and institutions. This brings us to a point in time where real change, radical change, systemic change must be embraced – proactively and aggressively.
None of this is easy – or it would already have happened. Doing so will require thoroughly rethinking and remaking the institutional framework of our state – from government to our schools to the non-profit sector. Far too many of the institutions through which we operate and address our economic and social drivers are sadly out of date, operating with the same approach and organizational infrastructure that got the job done 30 or 40 years ago. These approaches are no longer relevant to the world of 2013 and certainly ill-suited for the future we need to create.
Fortunately, there are signs of light all around us, rays of hope that show how we can turn things around. Efforts to make Wilmington more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly (just plain-old friendly is next), new restaurants and energy in LOMA, the promising data center being built at the former Chrysler facility and the McConnell-Johnson business incubator at the Hercules Building are examples of the great, inventive, risk-taking entrepreneurs among us who are committed to making Delaware the very best place in the nation.
As the First State, why should we be satisfied with being anything else?