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.