I like to consider myself a “Reformed Blogger.” For five years, I authored and managed an interesting little slice of the Delaware blogosphere called Down with Absolutes! When I closed up shop in July 2009, my site had attracted more than 1.2 million hits, a fair amount of local media coverage, and a bizarre fascination of my site by the IP addresses located in Legislative Hall.
Not satisfied with how my professional life had been advancing — and realizing the site had been a liability to me for some time — I decided to move on. I got my teaching job and found a new life as a very active member of my union. I cherish both my job working with special needs students as well as my role as president of the Red Clay Education Association.
But sometimes I have the itch. The itch to whip out that old-style pugnacious Mike Matthews filled with a passion and muted rage that has been missing for so long. And today is one of those days.
Data. We bow down to the data gods in this state. Our Department of Education — under the leadership of Gov. Jack Markell — has an almost bizarrely fetishistic preoccupation with data. Data! Data! Data! We are data-driven! Our data drives our instruction! Data coaches! Data Day! Now, let me be the first to say I do love me some data. Teachers love data. They’ve been using it since time immemorial to drive the instruction in their classroom. However, this continued shoving of data talking points down our throats is not changing the fact that our schools are under-resourced and for too many, schools are filling the widening gaps caused by troubled home lives.
But back to the data. Boy…do we have some data today!! The information is a little buried on the state Department of Education’s website, but it’s there if you search hard enough. First…some background. Newark Charter School is a charter school geographically located in the Christina School District. It’s a charter school in a school district with 60% low-income students. However, because of the school’s bizarre “five-mile radius” requirement (a large part of which is actually in Maryland), a good portion of low-income students in Christina are not eligible to attend: namely those poor city kids who’d have to be bussed out to such a far away school! Nevermind that those kids are already bussed to far-away schools Glasgow, Christiana, and Newark High Schools!
Last year, Newark Charter School — which had been a K-8 school — sought and was granted a modification to its charter. The school will now be K-12, with the 9th grade being the first to be phased in this year, the 2013-14 school year. When this was reported, all sorts of activists who are engaged on the issue of public education cried foul. They claimed this would draw students from the Christina School District who were perhaps more affluent. Resources would be taken from the traditional schools and put in Newark Charter. They claimed the high school most impacted — Newark High School — would see a great decline in white students.
Well, folks, we got the data. And it jibes pretty completely with what was said months ago. Last year, the percentage of white students entering Newark High School’s 9th grade class was 44%. This year, that number plummeted to 30%. Meanwhile, over at Newark Charter School, their 9th grade class is a whopping 69% white. Wow. That’s all I can say. A shift that dramatic could never be attributed to some off-year statistical anomaly. This is white flight, plain and simple. Wow. Wow. Wow.
I’m guessing a good portion of those students would have gone to Newark High School. However, as my good friend and blogger Pandora often says, why would you turn down what is, essentially, a free, “exclusive” private school education at a place like Newark Charter School?
This is all very planned. This is all very rehearsed. I’m going to break it to you: We continue to praise some of these high-performing charter schools as if there’s some magic going on inside them. No doubt, they are fine schools. However, they’re rigging the system. As we’re finding out as we delve deeper into the HB 90: Enrollment Preferences Task Force (and, to a lesser degree, the SB 147: District/Charter Collaboration Task Force), the schools have amazingly complex — and legally questionable — applications and enrollment practices that specifically allow them to exclude large portions of mostly minority and low-income students. In particular, at last week’s HB 90 meeting, emotions became flared by some representing charter schools when one state representative brilliantly went down a list of some of the most bizarre charter school application questions in Delaware.
I don’t know about you, but charter schools should be a representation of the school districts in which they’re located. A school like Charter School of Wilmington is located in Red Clay, a district with 50% low income students. However, CSW has a measly 1.6% low-income students. Newark Charter, in a district with 60% low-income, is only 13.5%. These charter schools are not representative of the districts in which they reside.
The data is in: White flight is real. Except this time, people aren’t fleeing the cities and moving to the suburbs. They’re pulling Johnny and Jane from their traditional neighborhood school for a bit of exclusivity. High-performing charter schools: They’re the new country clubs.
Now, whenever I have this discussion with someone who is a fan of charters, I always seem to have to qualify my words with this: I have no problem with charters. Charters can be a good thing when done properly and with the careful consideration of the overall education landscape. Hell, it was brought up in our SB 147 task force yesterday that even the ed-reformy BS’ers at the Gates Foundation say good charter school systems MUST be representative of the population as a whole. Low-income. ELL. Special education. The problem is that for too long, Delaware’s charter school laws have allowed these schools too much flexibility to game the system and advance their discriminatory admissions practices. The highest-performing charter schools are that way because they have exclusive means of accepting students. The mediocre charter schools are no better than the “average” traditional public schools. The really struggling charter schools lack either vision or financial/governance oversight and/or serve the same challenging student base that have left many traditional schools BEGGING for more resources for years.
All I’ve asked in years’ past was for this offensive comparison to stop. It is wrong to compare charters to traditionals when traditionals must take everyone. It is wrong to compare charters to traditionals when the charters can create applications and admissions systems that specifically exclude certain populations of students based on geography or test scores which then, by default, exclude certain socioeconomic groups. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.
Build all the charter schools you want. But the playing field needs to be even. Sadly, we had the potential to see some REAL charter school updates this past legislative session, but one Really Bad Bill drove the narrative and we’re simply left with More of the Same.