Gov. John Carney vetoed a bill Thursday that would remove the five-mile radius for enrollment preference at Delaware charter schools.
Gov. John Carney vetoed a bill Thursday that would remove the five-mile radius for enrollment preference at Delaware charter schools, arguing that it “unfairly excludes some of our most vulnerable” Wilmington students.
The bill, which passed the General Assembly in June, would have primarily affected the award-winning Newark Charter School by expanding its preference zone to the entire Christina School District, including many poorer areas. But the legislation became embroiled in controversy amid allegations of racial bias because it would have excluded a predominantly poor and black section of Wilmington that is not contiguous to the rest of the district.
“Educating our children is both a moral and an economic imperative, and the achievement gap in the state of Delaware is a problem that cannot be ignored,” Carney wrote in his veto letter. “At-risk students across our state, but especially in the city of Wilmington, are not getting the education that they deserve.”
The Democratic governor wrote that he shares the goal of eliminating the five-mile radius to “expand options for students and increase diversity at Delaware charter schools.”
He vetoed the bill, Carney wrote, because it “uniquely limits options for at-risk students” in the Wilmington part of Christina. Those students include “many of the kids who need our help the most – and that is something I cannot support.”
Christina is the only one of Delaware’s 19 school districts with non-contiguous sections. Newark Charter, located off Elkton Road, is within the Christina boundaries, but is not a district school.
Nearly two-thirds of Newark Charter’s students are white, compared with 30 percent of the students enrolled in Christina schools.
Newark Charter, which opened in 2001, is now Delaware’s biggest public school, 2,330 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Another 3,000 are on its waiting list. This year, for the second time, it was named a National Blue Ribbon School.
State Rep. Kim Williams, D-who sponsored the bill, has said she only included the part that excluded the Wilmington sections because Senate sponsor Dave Sokola said that was the only way he and his colleagues would support it.
After Carney announced his veto Thursday, Williams said she would not seek an override. Instead she said she would re-introduce the bill in January that she originally proposed – one that would not exclude Wilmington students – and that Carney’s office has assured her that the governor would assist her in efforts to get it passed.
Williams D-Stanton, said she had mixed feelings about Carney’s veto because there are “20-plus communities” in the district, such as parts of Glasgow Trailer Park, that are still not in the preference zone and have virtually zero chance of getting accepted.
“So I’m disappointed we’re not going to help other kids,” she said.
Sokola, a Democrat who represents the senatorial district in which Newark Charter is located, acknowledged in May during an interview with WHYY that he would not support the bill and it would likely not pass the Senate if it didn’t exclude Wilmington.
His main reasons, Sokola said then, was that it would cause “logistical challenges” in transportation and parental involvement because Newark Charter is about 16 miles from Wilmington.
Sokola, who is currently on a cross-country charity bike ride with Carney’s predecessor Jack Markell, issued a statement through spokesman Jesse Chaddedon that said he understood opposition by Carney and others.
Ultimately, I chose to advance this bill because I believed it would incrementally increase access to one of our state’s most successful charter schools in a geographic area where few other public school alternatives exist,” Sokola’s statement said.
Sokola addded that he is “in lockstep with the governor’s overarching goal of providing more resources and more educational opportunities for our Wilmington students” and would work to accomplish “just that.”
Wilmington City Council President Hanifa Shabazz issued a statement Thursday saying she applauded Carney’s veto and that “Council believes that this legislation was discriminatory on its surface and would not have stood a constitutional test.”
Shabazz also wrote that it’s council’s “fervent hope” that Carney would push to decrease the number of school districts in Wilmington, which is split among four districts. She also called for a “weighted funding formula for the high-poverty segregated schools that the state has created.”
Bill was called “discriminatory and unlawful’
Three Democratic state representatives — Stephanie Bolden and Charles Potter of Wilmington and John Kowalko of Newark – along with state NAACP president Linwood Jackson protested in May that the bill is “discriminatory and unlawful” and sought a legal opinion from Attorney General Matt Denn.
“Discrimination is racial, whether it’s against minorities or poor kids,” Bolden said then in an interview.
Denn responded with a letter that defers to House attorneys and the Delaware Supreme Court as the ones charged with “assessing the constitutionality” of the bill.
While Denn’s letter didn’t spell out his opinion on excluding Wilmington, he wrote that he “concurs with the overwhelming majority” of the members of a 2015 Enrollment Assessment Task Force. That body of lawmakers, educational officials and parents “agreed with giving preference in charter school admissions” to students who live in the school’s district but “disagreed with giving preference to students who lived within a particular geographic radius of the charter school,” Denn wrote.
Williams also said Thursday she has reached out to Gregory Meece, principal at Newark Charter, to “talk about the next steps.”
Meece had supported the provision that excluded sections of Wilmington, saying in May that the bill as written “makes sense to me but I wasn’t lobbying for it.”
Meece said then that the school has long embraced the 5-mile radius option because it was founded by Newark families for Newark children. Expanding that radius up to 1.5 miles to encompass the rest of Christina’s Newark-area population is a logical change that will let the school remain a resource for that community.
About 3,200 applied for the upcoming school year. But barring transfers the only ones with a decent chance of getting accepted are 190 of the 750 seeking kindergarten spots, Meece said.
Meece noted that Wilmington children can still apply, but acknowledged they currently have virtually no chance of getting accepted. “If our school wasn’t so popular it wouldn’t be an issue,” Meece said then. “But it’s become a political issue because they don’t like charter schools.”
You can read Carney’s letter explaining his decision below: