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Some keep court action on the table if Wilmington education issues aren't addressed

Delaware Public Media

While the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission continues traveling an uncertain path toward winning approval of its plan to improve educational outcomes for city students, a looming lawsuit has the potential to add another layer of confusion to the process.

Longtime Wilmington education advocate Jea P. Street, who is also a member of the New Castle County Council, says he is working to build a coalition that will file a class action lawsuit against the state, claiming that the General Assembly’s passage of three laws in the last 20 years has resulted in a resegregation of county schools that is more significant than the segregation that led to the start of court-ordered busing between Wilmington and suburban schools in 1978.

“I have a timetable, but I’m not going to talk about it,” Street said this week. “Eventually I’m going to stop talking and the lawyers will do the talking.”

Street, who is executive director of the nonprofit Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center, which provides educational and social development programs for Wilmington children and teenagers, has been a key participant in discussions on the quality of educational programs in Wilmington since the mid-1970s. He was recently named co-recipient, with retired University of Delaware Professor Jeffrey Raffel, of the 2016 Kandler Award from the Delaware Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for their ongoing efforts toward “assuring equal access to quality education for all children in Delaware.”

“It’s my firm belief that the Choice, Charter and Neighborhood School Acts have caused more of a segregative effect [in Wilmington and its suburbs] than the Educational Advancement Act did in 1968,” Street said. “The problem rests solely at the foot of the General Assembly.”

Portions of the 1968 law, a school district consolidation measure which, among other things, limited the size of merged districts and prevented the merger of Wilmington schools with suburban districts, were found to be violations of the U.S. Constitution. The result was a court-ordered desegregation plan that merged 11 school districts into one and required that suburban students attend city schools for three years and city students attend suburban schools for nine years. In 1981, the single district was broken into four, and the busing plan remained in effect until 1995, when the federal court order was lifted.

Then, in 1996, the General Assembly passed legislation authorizing the school choice program – essentially allowing students to enroll in schools outside established attendance zones, and even outside their districts, provided there was room for them in the receiving school. In the same year, legislation authorized creation of charter schools – public schools managed by independent boards of directors and free from many of the regulations that applied to traditional district schools.

The Neighborhood Schools Act, passed in 2000, required that the four districts that had been subject to the desegregation order “assign every student within the district to the grade-appropriate school closest to the student's residence,” eliminating most city-suburb busing at the elementary level. (With no traditional public high school and few middle schools in Wilmington, virtually all students at those grade levels would attend suburban schools.)    

Taking the three laws together, “in my opinion, there’s a substantive constitutional violation there,” Street said.

“The state can’t have it both ways,” claiming that the Neighborhood Schools Act is the law while continuing to bus high school students from the city to Newark, Christiana and Glasgow, and busing students from Wilmington’s east side past nearby schools to buildings in the Colonial School District, he said. “I think a judge will have to decide this one way or another.”

Street also noted, as members of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission have repeatedly stated, that Delaware is one of the few states that does not have special weighted funding to support students in high-poverty schools, English-language learners and children in kindergarten through third grade with special education needs.

He questions whether the state is serious about improving conditions for students in Wilmington if “it is not putting additional resources into high-poverty schools.”

Street said he is building a coalition that could include both groups and individuals to support the lawsuit. “It will be a class action of some kind,” he said.

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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