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In reality, education reform is about economics. If done properly, it will attract/retain businesses, provide jobs, generate tax revenues, increase property values, reduce crime rates, and reduce the single largest item in the state’s budget. This was the direction taken in 1995 by Gov. Carper, State Superintendent Mike Ferguson, and a business consortium (DuPont, Bell Atlantic, Delmarva Power, Hercules, Zeneca, and Christiana Care) when they advocated for change in Delaware’s public education system.

To be clear, we must first distinguish between teaching and education. Teaching is a profession consisting mainly of teachers with special knowledge and training who exercise personal judgment in carrying out their responsibilities with students in the individual school buildings. The broader concept of education, however, is a business.

The 1995 concept of Delaware education reform was implemented in a pilot program at a school that proved to be very successful. In a study conducted by Dr. Gary Miron of the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University at the request of the Delaware Department of Education and the State Board of Education, he observed that students at the new school were, “…outperforming their counterparts at similarly matched traditional public schools…”  The school achieved national recognition and generated a substantial operating surplus.

The essence of this bold plan was to shift operational decision-making authority from a school board and district into the individual school building. Control was now local and exercised by a principal working with teachers, answerable to parents with oversight and support provided by a board. Andreas Schleicher, a member of Rodel’s International Advisory Group, presented data at a Rodel Foundation Education Event to show that, when a school is given that type of autonomy, student performance is improved.

The significant reduction of district and board responsibilities should lead to a reduction of the number of school districts from 19 to 5 (1 in Sussex, 1 in Kent, 2 in New Castle, and 1 VoTech District.) New York City and Los Angeles each have only one school district.

Governor Carney’s first executive order creates a working group to consider a public-private partnership between Delaware’s Economic Development Office and the business community. Perhaps an education component should be added to the mix to reflect the previous business/education initiative. Recently the governor created a board to study government efficiency. Since education makes up about one-third of the state’s budget, if you have read this far in the article, you know this author’s position on education efficiency.

A reduced deficit, an improved economy, and higher student performance, now that’s a bold solution everyone can support.

Ronald R. Russo is a Senior Fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute, and the Founding President of the Charter School of Wilmington.

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State support for higher education is slipping with one large exception at the University of Delaware. One department, actually one individual, at the university is slated for a 38% increase according to the latest draft of the state budget.  This is in contrast to the state contribution for university operating expenses falling from about 21% in 2000 to about 12%, according to the University’s 2015 Investment Office Annual Report.

The currently proposed 2017 Fiscal Year proposed budget consists of fifty-nine pages of tables of budget numbers by department, and two hundred and twenty-six pages of “epilogue” language.  The epilogue pages are similar to footnotes and most of it is innocuous and a pretty boring read.  It can also be a place where bad policy goes to hide.

This may be the case with Section 285, page 199, which reads:

Section 285. Section 1 of this Act makes an appropriation to Higher Education, University of Delaware  (90-01-01) for the College of Arts and Sciences. Of this amount, $290,000 shall be allocated to the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy for research supervised by Dr. John Byrne as principal investigator

Yes, while other departments struggle as costs rise faster than state contributions, Dr. Byrne is expecting $290,000 to use as he sees fit, not even with direction for what he is researching.  The transfer effectively raises the earth sciences budget 38%.  Dr. Byrne and the University of Delaware have not responded to requests for comment.  A similar transfer was authorized in the last three year’s budgets but was designated more generally to the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy run by Dr. Byrne.

Unlike specific legislative bills there is no acknowledged sponsor of epilogue language.  However, Dr. Byrne and State Senator Harris McDowell (D – Wilmington North) have worked together for over a decade.  Senator McDowell is Co-Chairman of the Joint Finance Committee that writes the budget, and of the Senate Energy Committee.  Dr. Byrne and Senator McDowell jointly chaired the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) and its Oversight Committee over the last decade.  Dr. Byrne would be expected to consult with Senator McDowell in his role with the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy.  The obvious question is Dr. Byrne getting special treatment in the state budget because of his relationship with Senator McDowell.  Senator McDowell has not responded to requests for comment.

Senator Greg Lavelle (R – Sharpley) commented, “Based on the fact Dr. Byrne’s name is specifically mentioned in the epilogue language is a unique event, and we will be asking questions”.  He went on to say. “It would make one think that authority for use of the funds rests with Dr. Byrne and not the Center for Energy & Environmental Policy”, or the University.

David T. Stevenson, Policy Director

Center for Economic Policy

 

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The Washington State Supreme Court voted 6-3 to strike down charter schools, saying they “aren’t governed by elected boards and therefore not accountable to voters.” Read the decision here

Some background: In November 2012, voters approved a referendum to establish as many as 40 charter schools in the state. Charter school opponents became “Alarmed over the lack of local accountability and fiscal impacts of the Act” and filed a lawsuit against the network. The Washington State constitution says funding must be given to “common schools”, which were essentially defined as traditional public schools. The main complain is, charters and other school choice options are “selective” and force traditional schools to take “problem students.” The schools must also be “uniform”, or the same. If charters have lotteries and restrictions public schools do not have, then the schools are no longer uniform and charters cannot be provided public funding.

Delaware has a similar constitutional law which requires the government to fund a public education system, though it does not say the schools have to be run by the government, only provided. But the point is the same: these rules were set up not to ensure everyone an education, but to make sure as very few kids would be able to have an option besides the traditional public school. The way public schools are funded requires as many kids as possible to get into the buildings so the schools receive money.
Anti-charter proponents celebrated; at long last, they have succeeded in their quest to prevent students from going to a charter school. Most of these children will either end up home-schooled, sent to a private school which can take them, or, most likely, sent back to traditional public school where their attendance will ensure the schools get more taxpayer dollars and make any sort of education reform even more unlikely. Sadly, some adults are so opposed to school choice, the idea that a child might leave public school, that they openly cheer for the demise of alternative schools and education freedom just to make sure public schools (and those whose livelihood derives from public schools) keep getting money AND the status quo is maintained.
If you don’t think there is a problem yet, keep in mind SAT and ACT scores are flat, or even in decline. Here’s an article from left-leaning Slate acknowledging this.
The excuses abound: more students are taking the test (which is 1. dumb policy and 2. aren’t we supposed to improve everyone’s education? Isn’t that the whole point of No Child Left Behind?), Common Core State Standards are so stringent they are raising the bar too fast, the SAT and ACT are not fully aligned with student goals. The problem with this argument is, scores have declined for decades now in reading, and since 2006 writing scores declined across all ethnic and gender groups, and is now being eliminated from the SAT. Therefore, blaming Common Core for raising the bar and making the test now too difficult is a convenient overlook of the long-term problems we’ve had in this country.
What is not acknowledged is the stark reality: Most students just are not ready for college. Some ought not to go, but even then too many students are graduating high school lacking the basic skills needed to obtain a decent-paying job and career advancement opportunities. Of course, every entity except our current education system is to blame.
The same people who go after charters almost always include homeschooling and private schooling as a problem as well. Their attacks on charters and choice are little more than a thinly veiled effort to push all students to attend public schools, no matter how good or bad the school is run, no matter how ridiculous the government mandates are, or even irregardless of whether public education is right for every child.
Take the battle over HB 50, the Opt-Out bill. Supporters see this as a way for parents to have a say in their child’s education and keep their children from having to submit to a standardized test many feel is a problem. We agree- parents should be allowed to have a say in their child’s education, and absolutely students, especially in public schools, are over-tested. But what HB 50 supporters do not seem to understand is how futile their efforts are the long run, the “big picture” if you will. HB50 supporters seem to believe if you just get rid of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), somehow everything will be alright in the end. But they continue to believe in the system which gave them SBAC, they will find the bureaucracy will just provide a new program and standardized tests with similar, if only slightly different, objectives.  As long as they continue to keep the current system of education in place, there will be no real change.
Supporters of HB50 and anti-testing advocates also need to find a common alternative to Common Core/SBAC which will give principals the data they need to measure student progress and teacher competence. There are, in fact, teachers who are incompetent; admitting this is not “anti-teacher”, but a reality that no organization has complete competence from every single member. Not every student is motivated to learn on their own. Not every school is run well, or run poorly. As long as a method of measuring student progress is offered, education progress can be made.

Education Savings Accounts by themselves will not improve our education system, but they will move us forward when parents realize they do have the power to improve their children’s education if they want to. It’s parents, not school boards, not school districts, not teacher’s unions, not elected officials, not employees of the state Department of Education, not employees of the U.S. Department of Education, not private sector companies, who ought to have the final say in how their child is education. With a more competitive education system in place, one which empowers teachers and principals to do what is right, one which allows parents to have choices beyond what is in their zip code, education will improve.

And for those who say it won’t, look at our university system. We have arguably the best system on the planet, and there are plenty of public and private schools to go to. Oh, and public schools receive plenty of funding and are in no danger of going under, even though the government provides student loans to students who might go to a private school.

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pictured: Milton and Rose Friedman. photo: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

Today CRI celebrates the 103rd birthday of Dr. Milton Friedman, a man who was ahead of his time in recognizing the need for school choice to be available to all children, so that more children would be able to obtain a quality education, suited to their needs, and not be forced to live in poverty merely because of how they were raised.

Dr. Friedman wrote about school choice in his book Free to Choose in 1980, and dedicated a full chapter to the idea that parents should be allowed to choose schools for their children. It was based on the market idea of economics- schools should not be seen as sacred government buildings dedicated to protecting adult’s jobs, but as forces which should strive to provide the best services to its “customers” (students), and if they fail to do this, then the school either needs to be reformed, or the students should be allowed to go to another school which better serves their needs. This choice should be allowed irregardless of the parents’ income, or residential zip code which too often constrains students, particularly poor students, in poorly performing schools with no way out.

Advocates of public education for all will insist that education should not be  “privatized” and left to the evils of “capitalism.” Yet notice how upper-middle class and upper-class families handle their children’s’ education- private schools, charter schools such as the Charter School of Wilmington, home school, boarding school (for the very wealthy), or top-performing public schools. Notice how wealthier families do not feel the need to be constrained by zip code? There is a reason for this. Despite bluster by opponents of parental choice about how “privatization” is evil, rich parents will choose that option because the school must compete for the parent’s tuition dollars. If the school performs poorly, or does not serve the child’s needs, the child will be removed from the school.

When a similar situation happens in public school, teacher’s union leaders, superintendents, and local politicians wax poetic about the need for more “investment.” Never mind that Delaware spends $23,000 a year per student. But, teachers in Delaware earn roughly $59,000 a year minus benefits. Clearly, most of the money spent per pupil doesn’t pay teachers, even as debates over raising teacher’s pay are played out in districts around the country. Where is this money going? Wherever it is, expect those getting this extra funding to fight back against any efforts to take their money away, no matter how weak their justification for more “investment” is.

The poor performance of too many public schools causes parents with the means to do so to pull their kids out of public school. The kids who are left are usually poor, come from dysfunctional homes or impoverished neighborhoods, and are not offered a clear pathway to success. Combined with the influx of new students coming from recently arriving immigrant families, many of whom live in homes where English is not the first language, and an endless number of “Visions”, mandates, and standardized tests, these schools are not going to be in position to best help the children.

The goal of school choice is not, as our opponents allege, to “dismantle” public education or somehow sell it to multinational corporations. The goal is to merely go back to basic principles of greed, ambition, and what motivates us. Monopolies, by definition (which is how a lot of public school districts are operated, especially in low-income areas), nearly always provide poor quality, high prices, and poor customer service, because the human need to do better falls flat when there is no reward for doing so. We do not suggest people intentionally fail or desire to see kids suffer, because we know the vast majority of teachers, counselors, principals, and other building staff sincerely want to see children do well. In fact, teachers and counselors, especially in private schools, make very little money because teaching is their passion. They know they will never get rich teaching or advising.

The problem is, there is a system in place which has made too many people too comfortable, too dependent on the system to continue, and too unwilling to consider alternatives out of fear of what might happen if there are serious changes to the status quo.

We point out that teens and young adults around the country choose colleges or learning institutions right for them. If the school is not a match, the student leaves and goes elsewhere, or goes to work or to the military. Federal student loans are offered to students who go to private colleges which compete with public ones. Yet public schools are still very much around. Clearly school choice for college has not destroyed public education, and it will not destroy public education in K-12. All that will happen is, some people who believe they have a guaranteed job might lose it unless they are pressured into the marketplace of ideas.

All this was Dr. Friedman’s vision: great schools for all, and a vision of the best, most competitive education system serving student’s needs, the way colleges compete. Today we honor a man whose foresight has inspired the rest of us to see nothing less than a great system of education, improving the economic opportunities of all students no matter their household income, neighborhood, or learning challenges.

Here’s to you, Dr. Friedman.

His quotes:

“Our goal is to have a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go. We are far from that ultimate result. If we had that — a system of free choice — we would also have a system of competition, innovation, which would change the character of education.”
— CNBC Interview Transcript, March 2003

“It is only the tyranny of the status quo that leads us to take it for granted that in schooling, government monopoly is the best way for the government to achieve its objective.”
— “The School Choice Advocate,” January 2004

“Improved education is offering a hope of narrowing the gap between the less and more skilled workers, of fending off the prior prospect of a society divided between the “haves” and “have nots,” of a class society in which an educated elite provided welfare for a permanent class of unemployables.”
— “The School Choice Advocate,” July 1998

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Today is the fall-out day for Christina School District, after the voting public voted 54-46 to not approve a referendum for a smaller tax increase than the one asked for in February.

With this, the district says they now have a $9.5 million budget shortfall. They say over 100 teachers, paraprofessionals and secretaries face layoffs, with more possible depending on next year’s enrollment. Extracurriculars, maintanance, and textbook purchases are also likely to be delayed or cut.

There is a lot of anger on both sides about this vote. Check out one well-known blogger’s take on the referendum; he is clearly upset that a majority of voters opted not to pay extra for CSD to continue running. Or read the comments section in the News Journal. On the one hand those who supported the referendum are furious that there will be layoffs at the classroom level; on the other hand, those who voted no are unhappy that they are being accused of not caring about kids when some went on record saying they want the district to watch how it spends money and cut all spending until they can cut no more, and then they can ask for a tax increase.

This was actually the position of some of the school board members in Capital School District, when they ran for office (and have, for the most part, kept to their word). Only after all efforts are made to reduce wasteful spending should school boards ask their constituents for a tax increase.

We at CRI have no dog in this fight. We are not allowed to support or oppose a referendum, and this illustrates the need for voters to be informed about the issue before going out to vote.

Here are some facts:

  • Christina SD spent more money in 2013, the latest year Transparent Delaware has data for, on employee payroll. Now Christina Sd has the second-largest public school enrollment (Red Clay is #1), and part of the district encompasses Wilmington. However, Red Clay’s reported payroll was $130.3 million, or $27.6 million less than Christina, for roughly equally-sized districts.
  • Both districts have roughly the same number of non-public school students, and each has a charter school which has been accused of taking only the “best” students. Newark Charter and for Red Clay, Charter School of Wilmington.
  • It’s not a 100% perfect comparison, but the state DOE says Christina SD employed 2,749 people this year, of which 43% were in-classroom teachers. Using roughly $158 million for spending for this year, that’s an average district salary of $57,475.45, which is above the statewide average for both private and public sector employees. Now this is, of course, a somewhat inaccurate picture: the state DOE says a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 4 or fewer years of experience makes about $41,000, but at 15 years of services averages at $61,530. Have a Master’s degree? That teacher can start out at just over $47,000 and at 30+ years of service averages just over $77,000 a year. 54% of district staff (included non-teachers) have a Master’s.
  • 60% of the district is made up of Black and Hispanic students, and 41% of students are low-income while 18% are classified as special needs. The good news is, the overall graduation rate is up. The bad news is, the district’s SAT scores are lower than the state average, which is already 50th in the nation (we will soon have ACT data to back up our SAT results).

The district absolutely has a lot of challenges, and it may be time to split the Wilmington section from Christina and build a school district just for Wilmington, so the city’s leaders can focus on helping those kids, or splitting Wilmington into just two districts (Red Clay and Brandywine). But Christina, like virtually every other district in Delaware, is simply not producing results, and clearly the lack of money is not the problem.

For 50+ years, education leaders and union officials say if we just “invested” more in public education, we’d have  these great schools. But they never talk about changing the system, which is the real culprit here. Running a one-size-fits-all classroom setting only encourages proactive parents to pull their kids out and send them to charters or private school. They say they’re forced to take special needs and “problem” kids, but there are schools like Prestige Academy, Reach Academy (soon to close), Tall Oaks Classical School, and Kuumba Academy who will take in students from different backgrounds, not just the “good” kids. For instance, in 2013-2014 Prestige’s student enrollment was roughly 20% who were classified as special needs or requiring an IEP. There are schools who will take students from diverse backgrounds, but the most ardent proponents of public schools will not allow parents the opportunity which can be offered via an Education Savings Account, insisting that all kids go to public school, then complain when they get the kids they won’t allow to leave.

It’s long past time that Delaware, and the rest of the country, take a look at our public school system and implement real changes. The ultimate focus should be on how we as a society can best educate our kids, not who gets the money. As long as who gets the money is the focus of our system, it will be the kids who suffer the most, as ultimately the students will be the ones who will be affected by the fallout from yesterday’s referendum.

For the record, there is no word on how many of the district’s 108 employees (4% of the total) who earn over $100,000 in total salary will suffer pay cuts or job loss.

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The big news in Delaware today (not the awesome magazine, but today today) is that the state Department of Education has issued Christina School District with an ultimatum: close the three “Priority Schools” in the district (Stubbs Elementary, Bancroft Elementary, and Bayard Middle School) by the end of February 2015 or else turn them over to an outside manager. If they don’t comply the state will take them over.

Whereas Red Clay SD countered the state’s takeover plan with one of their own which did not require teachers to reapply for their jobs or for school principals to be fired and replaced with new $160,000 a year principals, Christina SD did not come up with a plan the state finds acceptable. Their school board also voted to reject the turnaround plan. So now the state is flexing its political muscle to get control over these three schools.

If you look at a map of Christina (click this link) you’ll see the district boundaries make no sense.

Christina serves the city of Newark and the suburban area around it, and then a piece of downtown Wilmington about 12 miles from its easternmost edge. Newark and Wilmington are not the same city and each has its own challenges. We at CRI believe there should be changes to how districts are drawn and the City of Wilmington should have its own school district. All three of the schools scheduled for closure or loss to outside managers or the state are in the city limits of Wilmington. Nonetheless, Christina is in charge and must come to a decision soon. What will they do?

If the past is any indicator Christina will fight the state all the way to the last week of February. In 2013 the district initially rejected Delaware’s requirements under Race To The Top but changed a portion of their plan when the state threatened to withhold $2.3 million in RTTT funding from the district unless it complied with federal directives. However, Governor Markell and Secretary Murphy are not exactly pushovers; we expect them to stand their ground on this issue and fully take over the schools at the end of the month if Christina doesn’t counter the Priority Schools plan with one the state finds acceptable. However, in the end the Governor has more power than the district and they know it; they will have to implement some reforms or else those three Wilmington schools will probably be turned into charters or turned over to private “for profit” entities who will (most likely) hire private management to oversee a turnaround effort.

Whatever happens, we will be watching with interest. From our end we have no stake in this battle except to see education in Delaware turn around. Again we repeat: 51st in SAT score performance, 9th in per-student per-year spending, and 4th in per capita administrative budget (number of administrators to students). Without serious education reform the state will continue to see businesses decline to invest here (unless they get goodies from DEDO) because our public education system isn’t “world class” enough to produce enough educated young people needed to take the high-paying jobs which move people out of poverty. Parents with children who have jobs in New Castle County will move over the border to Pennsylvania or send their children to one of Delaware’s private schools (we are #1 in the country for highest ration of children in private schools as a percentage of the total student body).

We are involved in our own education reform efforts. Look for CRI, in the days and weeks ahead, to continue to talk about Education Savings Accounts and why Delaware needs them. or visit http://www.caesarrodney.org and learn about what you can do to Impact Delaware.

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