Delaware legislators procrastinate fixing Wilmington schools’ ‘dysfunctional mess’

    (<a href=Yellow school bus via ShutterStock)" title="l_l_school16x9-5-1" width="640" height="360"/>

    (Yellow school bus via ShutterStock)

    Securing approval of redistricting city schools could prove difficult during an election year and a lame duck governor in office.

    Here is Larry Nagengast’s commentary:

    More often than not, resolutions fly through the Delaware General Assembly faster than the blink of an eye. For example, one soared through the House on Wednesday, “…extending sincere thanks to the Career and Technical Student Organizations of Delaware for the presentation of the beautiful geraniums.”

    But there are exceptions.

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    Consider the item that dominated discussion that same day in the House Education Committee, HJR 12, the resolution to support the recommendations of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission (WEIC) on the redistricting of public schools in the city.

    We’re talking serious business here – fixing the dysfunctional mess that public education in Wilmington has become in the wake of court-ordered school desegregation in 1978 that divvied up city schools among four districts, which was followed by subsequent legislation (choice, charter schools and the Neighborhood Schools Act) that contributed significantly to the resegregation of those schools.

    The fix will not come easily.

    It took the WEIC five months to develop a comprehensive plan, and three more to win approval from the State Board of Education. Now, both the House and Senate must approve a resolution supporting redistricting and the Joint Finance Committee must come up with some money (estimated at $9 million to $15 million) to get the ball rolling. If that happens, students and schools in the Wilmington portion of the Christina School District would become part of the Red Clay Consolidated School District at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

    There are no guarantees that the WEIC plan would work, but the people who have spent months studying the issue are confident that it will produce outcomes that would be better than what we’ve got now.

    So, what happened with the House Education Committee?

    First, the Republican members refused to bring the resolution up for a vote. Then they walked out when the Democrat who chairs the committee summoned a fellow Democrat from another hearing so there would be enough favorable votes to bring the resolution to the full House for a vote. But the eight Democrats didn’t give the WEIC much encouragement. Only two endorsed the resolution favorably. Two voted it out of committee unfavorably, and four “on its merits.”

    That’s hardly a ringing endorsement – especially in contrast to the legislation that set up the commission having passed the House last June 36-0, with five representatives absent or not voting.WEIC chairman Tony Allen called Wednesday’s vote “tenuous” – and that might be an overly positive assessment.

    The issue the plan’s advocates face is that there are many problems – and it’s hardly as simple as Republicans and Democrats not being able to fashion one of those “Delaware Way” agreements that both parties like to brag about.

    Securing passage could prove as difficult as assembling a jigsaw puzzle with 62 pieces – one for each member of the General Assembly.

    Wilmington legislators see the plan as a way of improving education in the city. Some suburban legislators (those in Newark, for example) might be happy to relieve their constituents of dealing with the burden of Wilmington educations. Others, especially those representing Red Clay, fear that adding more of Wilmington to their district might negatively impact their schools. On top of that, there’s the worry that Red Clay taxpayers will bear a financial burden if the state doesn’t come up with the money for low-income and English-language-learning students that’s needed to make the plan effective.

    Then you’ve got the downstate lawmakers who can argue, with great justification, that they’ve got plenty of low-income and English-language-learning students in their districts – and they could benefit from additional funds too. Well, yes, they could, but somebody has to find a way to pay for it … and the state treasury isn’t rolling in dough this year, nor is it likely to strike gold (or oil) in the next year or two.

    And don’t forget that this is an election year, so you can count on every member of the General Assembly to pledge “no new taxes” whenever a constituent raises the issue.

    Plus we’ve got a lame-duck governor – one who could barely persuade his appointees on the State Board of Education to support the plan and is less likely to successfully flex his muscle on lawmakers hell-bent on re-election.

    What will it take for the WEIC advocates to win this uphill battle?

    Those of us with long memories recall when DuPont CEO Irving Shapiro made a stink about the state’s top income-tax bracket of 19.8 percent being bad for business. Lawmakers bowed at his feet and the tax rates came tumbling down.

    Many business and nonprofit organizations have signed on in support of the WEIC plan. Presumably they believe that improving education in Wilmington will be good for business in Delaware and throughout the state, and that a better school system might ultimately mean a stronger employment base and less spending on big-budget items like prisons and on social services.

    It’s time for the heads of the State Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the Urban League, the United Way, the Rodel Foundation and the Vision Coalition to march into Legislative Hall and tell each and every senator and representative that the time for making excuses is past and now they must get down to business.

    If they make the case for the WEIC with the same intensity they show when they want lower taxes, new corporate laws, less business regulation and less stringent environmental rules, maybe our failing school systems – in Wilmington and throughout the state – will start getting the major repairs that they need.

    Larry Nagengast began writing about education and segregation in Delaware schools in 1972.


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