Post-Town Hall Thoughts

Gov. Jack Markell’s New Castle County Town Hall has just ended. It was nearly two hours, but went by very quickly. I applaud the governor for taking questions from the audience. He needs to do this more often. Many questions went unanswered. Some questions were answered to the audience’s satisfaction. Others, sadly, were not. In this post I will focus on the governor’s response to education questions, which seemed to hold a great amount of the audience’s interest.

First, I asked a question about school funding. I say this as a teacher concerned about growing inequities in our schools. I say “inequity” and not “inequality” because our schools CAN NOT and SHOULD NOT be treated equally. Students that come to certain schools with such deficiencies because of their situations borne out of poverty SHOULD NOT be treated equally. These schools need far more than what our archaic funding formulas provide. Federal Title I funds — which address high-poverty schools — are a too-small slice of the funding pie. It does very little to relieve large class sizes in our highest-needs schools. I implored the Governor and our legislature to begin to have REAL conversations and discussions about how we currently fund our schools and to look into ways we can better provide for our highest-needs schools. MUCH smaller class sizes, MORE support services, GREATER access to resources outside the school. I was not pleased with the response I got from the Governor. There is much work to do here and I’m not confident that his administration or the General Assembly will take up this issue in coming sessions.

A real barnburner of a question was asked by Kilroy. HB 119 was passed three years ago and outlines certain financial reporting requirements for charter schools. Kilroy pointed out that many charter schools still aren’t posting appropriate financial and regulatory documents on their website. Where has our Department of Education been on this? The Governor and Secretary of Education Mark Murphy did not give satisfactory answers to this question and Kilroy shouted out “You didn’t answer the question!” Gov. Markell assured Kilroy that his question was answered. In my opinion, it was not.

Finally, a question was asked by a woman in the audience about suspension rates in Delaware schools. This is a very serious topic. The question was asked from the point of view of “The state needs to step in to stop so many kids from being suspended.” As an educator, I agree. We need fewer suspensions in the system. However, as of today, our schools do not have the support they need — particularly in the high-needs schools — to bring these numbers down. Our teachers do not suspend kids. Our teachers report behaviors through referrals. Administrators then run those behaviors up against the student code of conduct — a document approved by school boards — and assign the punishment based on that document. These decisions to suspend children are not arbitrarily made. They are made according to the code. Many of these infractions involve severe disruptions to the educational process or offensive touching.

This question goes hand-in-hand with my question above: Most of the suspensions are occurring in the highest-needs schools. You want suspensions to go down? Then you need to stop treating schools in Hockessin and schools in inner-city Wilmington as if they’re cut from the same cloth. They. Are. Not. You can’t expect to educate equally a second-grade class of 28 in Hockessin and a second-grade class of 28 in Wilmington.

We already know the answers to all these questions. Our political leaders lack the will to speak the truth. They’d rather look at nebulously beefing up teacher preparation programs (while at the same time granting licensure to alternative forms of teacher prep programs that give only five weeks of training over the summer) or opening more dubiously-themed charter schools. They’d rather bring more data coaches and more PLCs. They’d rather bring in more testing and Common Core Standards. They’d rather threaten our highest-needs schools with closure or staff re-alignment if they don’t meet perverse achievement goals, a move that dramatically threatens the stability of those high-needs schools that so DESPERATELY crave consistency and teacher retention. They’d rather bring in more consultants and paperwork and regulation.

On many issues this evening, the Governor did very well answering the public’s questions. However, on the issue of education, I was severely disappointed, as I have been in much of this administration’s initiatives on education. If the governor wants to close that achievement gap, then he’d better be willing to ante up and supply those high-needs schools with more in an attempt to balance the scales that are weighted so heavily against the most vulnerable of our students.

He has a lot of work to do. We all have a lot of work to do.

13 comments on “Post-Town Hall Thoughts

  1. Vicki Seifred says:

    We need to be mindful of categorizing the schools in Hockessin as schools that do not need additional resources. The number of students receiving free/reduced meal programs needs to be considered, not the location of the school.

  2. You’re absolutely right, Vicki. In actuality, my point in the first sentence should have specified elementary schools. I kind of clarified upon my mention in the following sentence regarding second grade.

    All of our schools need adequate supports regardless of their placement on the socioeconomic scale. I suppose my main point is that while some schools have seen remarkable successes perhaps due to their socioeconomics, other schools have seen tragic challenges perhaps due to their socioeconomics. It’s a problem I don’t believe we’ve done a fair enough job addressing.

  3. kavips says:

    I forgot where you teach. Is it a high-needs school? If so, what percentage of an increase would you think should be minimum given to high-needs schools over schools that are well endowed? If your school is not one, then perhaps another teacher from a high-needs school could come up with something to give us a start? Would $100 a student cover it, or does it have to be double the allotment given per student wherever they go?

  4. kavips says:

    And thanks for reporting on the meeting…

  5. […] I wanted to riff off another question that got asked…. Here is the first person account before I […]

  6. kilroysdelaware says:

    Reblogged this on Kilroy's delaware.

  7. Eve Buckley says:

    Mike, thanks for the reporting and for your important questions. I’ve been trying to understand the class size “waiver” issue in Christina district, esp. for grades 4 & up. In your understanding, is this a district-level issue or a legislative (GA) issue? I’ve gotten different responses from different people. Some indicate that greater state flexibility on how districts spend funds (similar to the funding flexibility granted to charters) would allow district to more easily move funds to address needs for additional teaching “units” (I hate that term!) as they arise. Is this accurate, in your view? Is it something the charter-district working group that you’re on (Bryan Townsend’s) is discussing, or should?

  8. Vicki Seifred says:

    Thanks for keeping us informed Mike! There are really two “revolutions” that need to take place: a change in funding formula that reflects the socio-economic level of a school’s population and the return of trust to teachers who know how to meet the needs of their students. (Not some data coach, instructional coach, academic dean or whatever is the latest buzz word to increase student achievement) We know what works!!

  9. Hey, Eve…

    It’s both District-level and Legislative. It’s actually the greatest-ever bullshit hat trick I’ve seen. Here’s how it goes:

    The state has a law regarding class sizes, but only for grades K-3. The law says class sizes must stay at 22 and below. However, written in the state law is this lovely way out for districts, most of whom can’t meet these class size law because of funding restrictions. The law says that class sizes in grades K-3 can be WAIVED as long as the local school board votes to approve the waiver. How convenient, huh?

    Sadly, there’s nothing in the law addressing grades 4-12. In some elementary schools that try to meet the K-3 class sizes, the homerooms for 4-5 almost reach 30 kids. They can do this. Keep your K-3 classes under 22, but have 4-5 classes with 30, 32, or 34 kids as one Red Clay school saw a few years back. It’s a shell game.

    The state does give a great amount of flexibility to local districts to use their “units” as they see fit. This is tantamount to a great deal of inconsistencies across districts, though.

    Honestly, the whole funding formula/class sizes issue in this state is a hot mess. I’ve spoken publicly for the need to have this addressed at the state level. I don’t think we’ve got the political will to do it, though.

  10. Eve Buckley says:

    Thanks for the clarification about the class-size and funding hot mess (though I still don’t really understand it–but it sounds like that’s more or less the point). So many parents in CSD (and I’m sure elsewhere) are very frustrated about this, esp. for grades 4 & 5. My son’s elementary has small K-3s, as you mention, but very large 4s & 5s this year (33, 35? I don’t know where the enrollment numbers ended up, but in that range). And of course parents know full well that nearby charters can cap those grades at 27 per class and turn anyone above that away–it’s a huge district-charter parity issue, among other things. I understand that CSD is sitting on a budget surplus, which makes the overcrowded classes even harder for parents to swallow.

    I still don’t know whether the most effective way to put pressure on this issue is at the board or state GA level. But I think it’s something around which a fair amount of parental pressure could be mobilized (if that is even useful/effective here!), if it were clear what the best strategies for change should be–e.g. who should be put on the hot seat for this problem.

    Totally different question: I was trying to figure out when the SB 147 group meets but couldn’t. Is there a site for that, with meeting agendas, etc.? Are the meetings public?

  11. John Young says:

    Eve, we are not sitting on a budget surplus per se. We have monies in excess of mandatory holdover requirements that fund the July 1 – Oct 1 period before taxes come in.

    Our budget this year (preliminary) was submitted for a greater than 1million dollar deficit which will eat into that number.

    That said, waivers on class size are morally bankrupt and will not win my vote.

  12. Eve–

    The next meeting for SB 147 is Monday from 3-5. They are open to the public. It’s at the Appo Service Center, which is attached to Appo High School. I will be there.

  13. Eve Buckley ("Citizen") says:

    John, thanks for the clarification about CSD budget figures. I had thought the district was financially stretched, but another board member said otherwise–anyway, this clears things up a bit regarding that “surplus.” I am glad you won’t vote for the class size waiver (thank you).

    I really wish we could do something to cap 4th & 5th grade class sizes as well. In my (elementary, evolving) understanding, districts often “make up” for the smaller class sizes in K-3 by hiring fewer-than-ideal teacher #s for 4th & 5th. Is that a fair statement, or not? I know that it is tricky when a district school has, say 60 4th graders: 20/class at that grade level may seem costly (though I’d support that if it were remotely possible, financially!), but 30 per two classes starts to get pretty big, esp. with significant concentrations of higher-needs students. (I know Newark Charter caps those class sizes at 27, and of course need not admit anyone above that–unlike districts. Don’t know whether 27 is a typical charter class size for 4th & 5th). But at Downes this year and, I’ve been told, a couple of other CSD elementaries, there are 4th and 5th grade classes with 30-some kids (33, 34). That starts to get unwieldly, in so many ways–even architecturally, the classrooms just don’t easily accommodate that many bigger students.

    Is there any way for parents to start pushing back on this? How–at district board meetings? Appealing to state legislators for a state-wide standard, as with K-3 (despite the “waiver” option!)? Any suggestions much appreciated, here or via email.

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