Instead of a Hail Mary, Delaware’s State Board of Education punts

     (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

    (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

    With the Super Bowl only two weeks away, a football analogy seems appropriate.

    Here is Larry Nagengast’s commentary:

    With a well-thought-out, 200-page game plan in hand on Thursday, Delaware’s State Board of Education had a chance to make a big play, to start a long drive designed to lead to an equitable education system for low-income and English-language-learning students in Wilmington … and ultimately throughout the entire state.

    Huddled around the massive tables in the Cabinet Room, board member Terry Whittaker called the first play – a motion to accept the plan prepared by the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission (WEIC).

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    Then the doubts crept in. The other members of the board’s team started to worry that some of the plays in the game plan might not work perfectly. They worried that they might be thrown for a loss.

    So they punted – telling the commission that it will have to come up with an improved plan within two months … but first the State Board might take a week or more to write a letter spelling out just what it is that they don’t like about the plan they were presented.

    And, when the revised plan does get back to the State Board, they’ll have to run a two-minute drill because the law that created the commission last year set a March 31 deadline for the board to approve whatever plan the commission developed.

    If the State Board does not approve the plan before that deadline, it’s sudden death … the most comprehensive, most detailed initiative to establish an equitable public education system in Delaware in more than 40 years will have been fumbled away.

    The reality is that this plan will have to pass many more tests before it can be implemented – starting with a requirement that both houses of the General Assembly approve a joint resolution recognizing the State Board’s acceptance of the plan, and that Gov. Jack Markell sign the resolution, before June 30.

    Only after that would the truly hard work begin – hard work that involves ironing out the details of shifting responsibility for the Christina School District’s five schools in Wilmington to the Red Clay Consolidated School District; possibly assigning more than 2,000 students to new schools, reassigning about 300 school personnel, including 175 teachers; and figuring out how to pay for a variety of learning supports that the commission says are necessary to provide low-income and English-language-learning students with the tools they need to succeed.

    Many of these details, once they’re worked out, will require additional approvals, from the State Board, the General Assembly, or both. And the Red Clay district has conditioned its continued involvement in the process on receiving the funding needed to support additional programs.

    In other words, even if the State Board had voted to move forward, there are many more challenges that must be tackled before Wilmington students now attending Christina schools would become part of the Red Clay system for the 2018-19 school year targeted in the plan.

    The WEIC plan is, in many respects, an effort to clean up a mess the state created.

    Delaware, one of five states whose segregated school systems were challenged and struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, never fully desegregated its schools. Another federal court order resulted in a busing plan to desegregate schools in Wilmington and northern New Castle County in 1978. That court order led to the four-district system now in place. However, since 1995, when the state successfully petitioned to have that court order lifted, it has created a “choice program,” established charter schools and implemented a Neighborhood Schools Act – all of which have contributed, in varying degrees, to a reestablishment of segregation of schools in northern New Castle County.

    WEIC Commission Chair Tony Allen, a Bank of America executive, noted after the State Board vote that, since the Brown decision, “The state actors – the State Board, the governor, the General Assembly – have never acted to provide more equitable educational access [to minority students].”

    The State Board had an opportunity to reverse that historic pattern – and they punted.

    The board will get a second chance. The game will be on the line. Punting will not be an option, and a fumble could have devastating consequences for children in Wilmington and throughout the state.



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

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