Report Card for Delaware’s Charter Schools

by Paul Baumbach
A version of this piece was originally published in the News Journal

How are Delaware’s charter schools affecting our public schools?  In 2008 Jack Markell said this about Delaware’s charter schools:  “We know about some of the successes, but we also know about some of the big problems: resegregation, the skimming of students, the creaming of students…it’s a big issue and for me a matter of major concern.”

He likely based these concerns on a evaluation commissioned by the state Department of Education (DOE) completed in 2007.  Its conclusion noted areas that ‘need to be watched and considered carefully.  These include accelerating the resegregation of public schools by race, class, and ability and the disproportionate diversion of district and school resources (both financial and human resources) from districts to the more recently established charter schools.’

Last year a review by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers revealed similar concerns.  NACSA thoroughly reviewed four areas—application decision making, monitoring operations, performance-based accountability, and school autonomy, both how the practice is established (by the legislature and the DOE), and how it is applied, by the DOE.  They gave failing grades in all eight sections.  All eight.

Why are we advancing Delaware’s charter school system without fixing these systemic failures?  Delaware’s charter school system needs to be reexamined and reformed, due to the dramatic changes to the public school landscape and our charter school experiences over the past 17 years.

How should our charter school system help to improve public education?  Delaware law requires that charter schools deliver research-supported innovation, programs that don’t currently exist in Delaware’s traditional public schools.  Once in operation we need to measure the innovation’s level of success.  Where the innovation is successful, it should be incorporated into our public schools.  What good is a drug trial that cures cancer in its sample of patients, but isn’t rolled out to the public at large?  This feedback loop is critical to demonstrate the effectiveness of any system, yet is absent from our current system.

The reports note that the DOE fails to oversee adequately Delaware’s charter schools, to implement existing regulations, and to institute needed additions.  The DOE admits that it fails to conduct separate audits of its authorized charter schools, as required by the code.  Delaware law and regulations for approving charter school applications fail to address the resegregation of the student population, and the impact on the neighboring schools.  While these are the two leading concerns for citizens, families, and school districts questioning the need for new or expanded charter schools, our system fails to address them, and the DOE has failed to propose needed changes.

To ensure quality public schools for all, we must reverse the resegregation of our schools, an unintended consequence of our charter school law and regulations and DOE’s failed oversight.  Secretary Lowery placed two conditions on Newark Charter School’s recent expansion application, to reverse the resegregation there.  This is a good start, but is reactive, and addresses only one of Delaware’s 22 charter schools.  The law and the regulations need to be expanded to address these failings, and the DOE needs to start doing their job in administering the regulations.

When you find yourself in a deep hole, the first step is to stop digging.  Before we increase the tax dollars spent on our state’s charter schools, we must acknowledge the problems, take the time to identify and then execute steps to reverse the problems: resegregation, the absence of transferring successful innovations into our public schools, the harm that charter schools bring to neighboring public schools, and woefully inadequate oversight by DOE.  Jack Markell in his Blueprint for a Better Delaware suggests that ‘After more than a decade of operation for both programs, it is time to evaluate these policies and make the necessary adjustments.’  Let’s agree to address the problems and THEN build on the successes of charter schools in Delaware.  First, let’s stop digging.