COMMENTARY: Education plan needs to include all Delaware disadvantaged students

The Wilmington Education Improvement Commission rightly cites the city’s patchwork educational governance as a factor in the poor performance of local schools.

The legacy of court-ordered desegregation has left four school districts [each] with a portion of the responsibility for educating the City of Wilmington. Additionally, a number of public charter schools serve the city.

According to the WEIC’s latest report, “23 separate governing units … now are responsible for delivering public education to 11,500 Wilmington children with no unified plan, little collaboration, and no requirements for coordination.”

Another challenge is the large proportion of students from low-income families and those with limited English skills.

Currently, the Red Clay, Colonial, Christina, and Brandywine school districts serve Wilmington. The commission’s plan would take the approximately 2,500 students taught by Christina — a non-contiguous district based about 18 miles west of the city — and transition them into the Red Clay District, which already serves more than 3,700 Wilmington youths.

The commission report says this recommendation would “consolidate more than 50 percent of Wilmington’s students in a single school district, thereby enhancing both accountability and alignment of instructional programs.”

The city operations of Brandywine and Colonial would continue. Bringing many of Wilmington’s students under unified management appears sensible.

There is a great deal more to the commission’s detailed 217-page report than can be parsed in a single column. However, there are a few issues at the center of concerns regarding its implementation. Chief among these are funding and equity.

House Joint Resolution 12 is currently before the House of Representatives. Its enactment would approve redrawing Wilmington’s school district boundaries in line with the WEIC report’s recommendations.

The resolution stipulates that it would be “conditioned upon the allocation of necessary and sufficient funding.” A companion piece of legislation, House Bill 390, expands on this point by stating: “Final approval of the transition plan and resource plan by the General Assembly and the governor shall not … bind the state, nor any of its political subdivisions, to any specific action with regard to revenue and spending.”

In my opinion, these stipulations are meaningless. Once approved, political pressure — and possible legal action — will ensure that redistricting, and other aspects of the plan, will be funded. Questions about what will be financed, how much it will cost and who will pay remain unanswered.

The commission maintains “that redistricting must be accompanied by the … resources needed to fully address the needs of low-income students, English language learners (ELL), and other students at-risk.”

The commission indicates this should be done by establishing “weighted unit funding” to address the needs of such students, first benefiting those in the redrawn school district, then to other areas of Wilmington, and eventually statewide.

For those of us representing schools in Kent and Sussex counties that have low-income, ELL, and challenged students in percentages similar to those in Wilmington, this suggestion is unacceptable.

The needs of downstate students are no less pressing and no less deserving of attention than their upstate counterparts.

Additionally, this question is currently under review by the Education Funding Improvement Commission. Empaneled under Senate Joint Resolution 4 last year, this group is charged with a comprehensive review of Delaware’s public education funding system and making improvement recommendations. Its work is ongoing.

The commission stated in its report “that there should be no undue burden on taxpayers in the affected districts as a result of the process of redistricting.” But other aspects of the commission’s plan call for capital funding for the reconfiguration of the impacted city schools; a property tax reassessment; and authorization for affected districts to make limited tax rate adjustments … to meet operating expenses.

The plan also references the potential creation of a new Wilmington High School.

Estimates of how much the early stages of the redistricting and improvement plan would cost are varied, but most exceed the $6 million first installment the governor included in his recommended FY 2017 budget.

Since the governor issued his budget in January, the state’s revenue estimates have dropped by nearly $45 million, squeezing all of the state’s funding priorities.

Proponents of moving ahead with Wilmington redistricting, despite the myriad of unanswered ponderous questions, cite a sense of urgency. They claim that if the General Assembly fails to act now, all hope for change will be lost. I disagree.

I believe lawmakers, analysts, and stakeholders need to continue work on this plan for the remaining five months of the 148th General Assembly. This additional time will provide the opportunity to collect some of the details needed to forge ahead and maintain momentum. We have yet to see what education funding reforms — one of the essential elements and sticking points of the Wilmington schools reorganization plan — will be suggested by the Education Funding Improvement Commission. We will also have better cost estimates that can be factored into the start of the next budgetary process.

I share the Wilmington delegation’s resolve that the city’s schools need fixing, as does the funding dysfunction hurting our high-poverty rural schools. Given the stakes of these crucial decisions, a cautious, deliberate approach is the most prudent course of action.

Editor’s note: State Rep. Daniel B. “Danny” Short, R-Seaford, is House Minority Leader.

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