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State Dept. of Ed. announces new emphasis on equity, advocates call for more

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
Students spoke at the inaugural DDOE equity summit in 2019

Delaware’s Department of Education (DOE) is promising an increased focus on equity amid nationwide protests for racial justice. But there is no new funding to back it up.

DOE’s Office of Innovation and Improvement is now called the Office of Equity and Innovation. The Office’s director, former Mount Pleasant High School principal Jim Simmons, will be called the Chief Equity Officer. And the role of Monique Martin, a DOE official who previously supported educators around equity, will be expanded.

“We want that role to grow to be beyond just our educators and be available to community groups, to be available for internal training as well as external training, there may be times when school districts ask her to do such things as work with students or do an equity audit,” said DOE Secretary Susan Bunting in an interview Thursday.

The renamed office will work on diversifying the teacher workforce, according to state officials. It’ll also provide training to DOE as well as local educational agencies on instituting policies and practices that promote equity and facilitating conversations about race and social justice. 

Bunting admits the Department needs to be “doing more” around equity.

“We made this change to give more emphasis to equity and to also make sure that we could put boots on the ground when there was an invitation or an opportunity to promote equity, whether that’s in the department, within teacher trainings, in community groups,” she said. “I don’t want to say the sky's the limit but in essence it is.”

But there is no new funding or staff to support the new emphasis. Educational equity advocate Daniel Walker of Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now (DelawareCAN) says that may be a problem.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Walker said of DOE’s renamed office. “It’s a new name, with a larger function and more responsibility, but with the same funds.”

Walker says the key to educational equity lies in school funding.

“The easiest thing to do for equity in education is exactly what the state is fighting against right now. That’s to ensure that we have an equitable funding formula that meets the needs of all students, particularly our Black and brown students, our low-income students and our english language learners,” Walker said. “If we truly say we want to focus on equity, we should not be combatting the very real moves that need to happen to allow that to be so.”

Education and civil rights advocates sued the state and its counties in 2018 — claiming inequities in Delaware’s education funding system harm disadvantaged students. A judge recently ruled the counties’ property tax assessment systems unconstitutional, but has yet to decide on the remedy. The part of the suit challenging the way the state distributes education funding is also still pending.

Walker also notes that several recent superintendent turnovers have failed to increase the number of district leaders of color in Delaware. 

With the exception of Dorrell Green, who took over as superintendent of the Red Clay Consolidated School District last year, all of the recent superintendent appointments—at BrandywineSchool District in April, at Lake Forest School District in May and at Christina and Indian River school districts this month— have been of white men. Capital School District is currently looking for its next superintendent.

DOE is still working on a statewide equity framework, the stated goals of which are to elevate student voices, diversify the educator workforce, cultivate culturally proficient leadership and culturally responsive teaching, design socially just environments and build diverse partnerships. The process for developing the framework involved stakeholder feedback sessions during the 2019-2020 school year, according to DOE officials. The final report is expected this fall. 

The state has previously found gaps in content proficiency and educator quality for students of different races and income levels.

Gov. John Carney voiced support for the renaming of DOE's innovation office in a statement earlier this month. 

“Our revamped Office of Equity and Innovation will provide districts, charters, school leaders, and educators with the resources and guidance to have hard yet vital conversations with students and colleagues about race and inequity in Delaware and our country," he said. "If we choose to ignore our ugly history around race, we can’t begin to understand the anger and frustration I’ve heard from so many Delawareans who are demanding justice and equality."

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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