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WEIC seeks to move forward despite budgetary roadblock

Delaware Public Media

Members of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission will meet Tuesday (Feb. 28) to review a study on the financial impact of moving six schools in Wilmington from the Christina School District into the Red Clay Consolidated School District, kicking off the second year of their effort to improve the quality of educational services offered in the city’s fragmented public schools.

To take effect, the WEIC proposal will need the approval of the General Assembly, which gave the plan a limited endorsement last June. Securing legislative support already looks like an uphill battle.

“I don’t know how far they can get. This is a very tight budget year,” says Susan Bunting, the state’s new secretary of education.

“I don’t think it’s going to move through,” says Rep. Earl Jaques, the Democrat from Glasgow who chairs the House Education Committee.

And Gov. John Carney, in a telephone town hall meeting this week, said, "We're obviously not going to have the kind of revenue to provide additional resources to children – which is one of the recommendations – from disadvantaged backgrounds, something I think we ought to look at in the long term." Carney went on to suggest that he thinks the question of how to best meet the needs of disadvantaged children needs still more study.

Comments like these before the legislative push begins are hardly encouraging, but WEIC is committed to moving ahead.

The WEIC proposal has two key components – redistricting and funding. While the redistricting component drew the most attention last year, primarily because it would result in a majority of the 10,000-plus public school students who live in Wilmington attending schools run by one district, the funding issue is the top priority, says Tony Allen, the Bank of America vice president who serves as WEIC’s chairman.

Without additional funding to increase and improve programs for students from low-income families, English-language learners and children in grades K-3 who have special needs, it won’t matter whether Christina schools and students are moved into Red Clay or not, he says.

And, Allen emphasizes, there are large concentrations of students throughout the state who fall into these categories, so the additional funding should be implemented statewide, not just in Red Clay and Christina.

“Fifty percent of our public school students statewide are low-income, and the highest proportion of English-language learners is downstate,” he says.

In approaching the General Assembly this spring, the commission will advocate a phased-in approach – a political necessity given that the state’s budget writers are currently looking at a deficit estimated at $350 million.

“We don’t think the General Assembly can take a full bite of the apple at this time,” Allen says, “but you can take a district in each county as our first foray. You can begin to prove the point and phase it in over time.”

The financial impact analysis the commission will review next week should give a better estimate of the costs involved. Last year, when WEIC first sought approval from the General Assembly, the first-year cost of supplemental funding to targeted schools was estimated at $6 million and $9 million. In his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, former Gov. Jack Markell earmarked spending $7.5 million on this initiative. The final report from Gov. John Carney’s transition team, on which Allen served, recommended spending $15 million in the first year of a pilot program covering all three counties, but did not give an estimate of the full cost of implementation.

A WEIC subcommittee headed by Joseph Pika, a retired University of Delaware professor who was once president of the State Board of Education, was still massaging the numbers this week, said Dan Rich, the UD administrator who serves as the commission’s staff director. The analysis will cover not only state funding, but also the impacts on local funding in Christina and Red Clay as students move from one district to the other and the impact of the possible moves on federal funds the districts now receive.

One piece of the analysis won’t be ready for another month or so, Rich said. That portion, an evaluation of the costs of upgrading the school buildings impacted by the move, is being handled by the State Department of Education.

Last year’s drive to secure approval for the plan, which included two 4-3 votes by the State Board of Education, concluded with the General Assembly passing two pieces of legislation, one giving conditional approval to the redistricting and the other stating that redistricting could not move forward without additional funding for low-income students, English-language learners and students in primary grades with special education needs.

Delaware has fallen behind other states in meeting the educational needs of these children, and passing the legislation would start putting the state back on track, Rich says. Delaware is one of only four states that does not make special allocations for English-language learners, and one of about 15 that does not make similar allocations for low-income students. And, he says, although the state screens infants to determine whether they might have special needs, it does not provide special school funding for these children until they enter fourth grade.

To introduce the supplemental spending into school budgets, WEIC will propose using a “multiplier” to boost allocations through the unit system that drives school finance, Rich says.

Here’s a hypothetical example of how that might work: In grades 4-12, if you have 20 students, that equals one unit – essentially state funding to cover the cost of one teacher’s salary. If a school has 200 students in those grades, it qualifies for 10 units. If a multiplier of 1.2 were used for low-income students or English-language learners, a school with 200 students in those categories would receive enough funding to cover salary costs for 12 teachers. However, it is not known now what the multiplier would be or whether districts would have to use all the supplemental funds to pay for teachers, or whether they could use it to hire aides or other support personnel.

Allen and Rich say the commission has not devised a strategy yet for persuading legislators to back the proposal, but the emphasis on statewide need for supplementing funding could help gain support from downstate legislators, many of whom were concerned last year that the WEIC plan would primarily benefit students and schools in northern New Castle County.

“WEIC’s intent is to address needs across the state,” says Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association. “If it had been named DEIC, the Delaware Education Improvement Commission, its plan might have a greater chance of success.”

Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, echoes that point. “The name WEIC has limited their impact…. We have children in poverty across the state,” she says, arguing that WEIC would benefit by emphasizing the statewide character of its mission.

Jaques, the House Education Committee chair, says he isn’t convinced that the plan will ensure a better education for the students it is intended to benefit. That question, he noted, was also raised by the State Board of Education in its debates on the subject last year.

WEIC leaders have said that devising new educational strategies would be up to leaders in the Red Clay District, and that work would be done during a transitional period after funding and redistricting are approved.

“They’re not going to take the time to develop a feeder pattern and an organizational structure until the General Assembly says this is where we’re going,” Rich says.

If the WEIC plan gets through the General Assembly by June 30, student and staff reassignments would take at the start of the 2018-19 school year. If the plan is approved in 2018, reassignments would begin a year later. If the plan is not approved by June 30, 2018, the current legislation specifies that the plan would die.

Jaques also raised the possibility this week, without offering details, of introducing legislation that would “get Christina out of Wilmington” without assigning its students and school buildings to Red Clay.

Even if WEIC’s funding and redistrict proposal is approved, many issues will remain with public education in Wilmington. While the Red Clay and Brandywine districts would then be serving the vast majority of the city’s public school students, the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District operates Howard High School, and there would still be seven public charter schools inside the city and eight others in the suburbs that accept students from Wilmington.

“When you’ve got 18 to 23 different governing bodies trying to set forth educational curriculum and pedagogy for 10,000 Wilmington children, all of whom don’t talk to each other that well and who have different models of education, that’s never going to be effective for Wilmington,” Allen says.

“So we’re still going to have to step up to the challenge of coordinating all of those who are delivering education to children throughout Wilmington,” Rich adds.

“WEIC has done a lot to bring attention to the right issues,” says Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation, a Wilmington-based school reform advocacy organization. “Often when you look at complicated political things, it doesn’t get over the hump the first time it’s introduced.”

“They have started a conversation that we all need to have,” Massett adds.

Acknowledging the challenge they face, Allen and Rich say WEIC is determined to push forward, hoping to persuade lawmakers that, even with a looming budget deficit, meeting the educational needs of the state’s most underserved children should not be deferred.

“The longer we wait to take action to improve conditions for low-income and English-language learning students, the higher the cost will be,” Rich says. “We’re not saving money. We’re just guaranteeing that we’ll be spending it in other ways.”

If new funds aren’t available, the state should consider adjusting the way it allocates the money it does have, Allen says.

“It’s a matter of priorities. We spend between $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion on public education in Delaware,” he says. “If half the population is poor and English-language learners, and you don’t have the resources now, you could reprioritize your budget to meet those needs.”

The Wilmington Education Improvement Commission will meet Tuesday, Feb. 28, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Thomas B. Sharp Center in the Marshallton Education Building, 1703 School Lane, Wilmington, near Prices Corner. In addition to reviewing the financial impact report, the commission will hear Gov. John Carney and Secretary of Education Susan Bunting discuss the state’s education priorities.

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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