Wilmington kids left out in bill that expands Newark Charter preference zone

 A bill has passed the Delaware House that would allow Newark Charter to expand its preference zone but exclude Wilmington students. (courtesy of Newark Charter School)

A bill has passed the Delaware House that would allow Newark Charter to expand its preference zone but exclude Wilmington students. (courtesy of Newark Charter School)

For the 16 years Newark Charter School has been in existence, the high-performing institution has given preference to students who live within five miles of the campus.

Using that formula the school has grown and thrived, and this year became a National Blue Ribbon School for the second time.

It’s now Delaware’s biggest public school, with 2,330 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Another 3,000 are on its waiting list.

Yet as the school has flourished, discontent has grown among families, politicians and other critics that a significant swath of the Christina School District — homes and neighborhoods outside the five-mile radius – are excluded from the school’s lottery. Newark Charter, located off Elkton Road, is within the Christina boundaries, but is not a district school.

Now state lawmakers are taking up the issue, as a bill that would remove the five-mile radius as a preference charter schools can select has passed the House and will next be heard by Senate.

The bill, should it become law, would instead allow schools to give preference to students within the entire district. 

Yet the legislation has one controversial caveat that is raising hackles among lawmakers, residents and the Christina board president. It would allow Newark Charter to exempt Wilmington students who live in the Christina district from its preference area. 

That’s because the bill excludes “non-contiguous” areas of a district from the area that can be given preference. Christina is the state’s only school district that has a non-contiguous section — a predominantly black section of Wilmington which is more than five miles from the eastern edge of the geographically connected part of the district.

Three Democratic state representatives — Stephanie Bolden and Charles Potter of Wilmington and John Kowalko of Newark – along with state NAACP president Linwood Jackson are protesting that the law is “discriminatory and unlawful” and have sought a legal opinion from Attorney General Matt Denn.

“Discrimination is racial, whether it’s against minorities or poor kids,” Bolden said in an interview.

Nearly two-thirds of Newark Charter’s students are white, compared with 30 percent of the students enrolled in Christina schools.

Denn responded Monday 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.

State Rep. Kim Williams, a Newport-area Democrat who co-chaired the task force and is vice-chair of the House Education Committee, drafted a bill this session to replace the 5-mile radius as a preference with a school’s entire district.

But when she was looking for a Senate co-sponsor she turned to David Sokola, a fellow task force member and chair of the Senate Education Committee. Sokola also represents the senatorial district in which Newark Charter is located.

Sokola told her 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 in an interview Tuesday, was that it would cause “logistical challenges” in transportation and parental involvement because Newark Charter is about 16 miles from Wilmington.

School buses, however, transport students over similar distances from Christina to the Red Clay Consolidated district’s Cab Calloway School of the Arts and the Charter School of Wilmington. Christina students from Wilmington are also bused to Newark, Christiana and Glasgow high schools. Glasgow and Newark are about 4 miles from Newark Charter.

‘Try to make some steps forward’

Williams said she disagreed with Sokola but wanted to put a bill forward to remove the 5-mile limit, so she compromised and added the provision that charters also could give preference to “students residing in any portion of the regular school district that is geographically contiguous with the location” of the charter school.

“I knew it did not have a chance of getting anywhere” without the compromise language, Williams said. “So I decided I was going to work with what I have and try to make some steps forward.”

She stressed that “I wanted all children to be able to have access to Newark Charter … I’ll keep pushing for change. Sometimes changes comes slowly.”

She introduced the compromise bill, with Sokola as a co-sponsor, on March 28. A week later, the House Education Committee sent it to the floor for consideration. Both Bolden and Potter, who sit on the panel, voted to do so. Bolden gave it a “favorable” recommendation. Potter OK’d passing up the legislation “on the merits,” which means a lawmaker is neutral. 

When the bill came up for a vote Thursday, Kowalko introduced an amendment that would remove the opportunity to exclude a “non-contiguous” part of a district. It failed 25-15. 

Williams’ bill then passed 27-13. On Monday it was assigned to the Senate panel Sokola chairs.

Sokola said Williams could have asked another of Delaware’s 21 senators to be co-sponsor and that any member is welcome to introduce an amendment like the one Kowalko proposed.

“I am just one vote. This isn’t me blocking it,” Sokola said.

Fellow Democrat Harris McDowell of Wilmington said he would oppose the bill as written.

“Charter schools are nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to run a private school in the public system,” McDowell said. “One of the drivers is the latent prejudice that exists in our society.”

McDowell said that while he will vote no, the bill “probably” will pass.

‘Time we stop sacrificing Wilmington students’

Newark Charter principal Gregory Meece said the bill as written “makes sense to me but I wasn’t lobbying for it.”

He said 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 have already applied for next 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. But it’s become a political issue because they don’t like charter schools,” Meece said.

Bolden, who like Potter voted against the bill on the House floor, said the bill discriminates against Christina residents of Wilmington, which is predominantly black.

“We pay taxes to all the schools in the Christina district. We get bused out of the city. Yet Wilmington kids would not be allowed to go,” she said. “They have been operating Newark Charter as a private school and it’s not a private school.”

Elizabeth Paige, president of the Christina School District, agreed.

“I am disappointed but I’m not surprised,” Paige said. “Newark Charter doesn’t want Wilmington kids in their school. I think it’s time we stop sacrificing Wilmington students, and writing it off as a compromise.”

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