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Education Advocacy in Delaware: Then and now -Part 1

Delaware Public Media

Discussions about work to address education issues in the First State often focus on school leaders, Dept. of Education officials and lawmakers or groups created by them, like the Redding Consortium.  But there are others trying to make a difference – parents, private citizens and grassroots groups that advocate for change.

Over the next two weeks, Delaware Public Media contributor Larry Nagengast looks at that latter group - then and now. 

This week, he checks in with some fighting the fight since the 1970s when desegregating schools was the focus of the battle to get their perspective.

Bebe Coker has a long memory – one that’s long enough to remember how she fought for the interests of Wilmington public school students in the 1970s, in the years before desegregation in northern New Castle County.

Coker also has a solid understanding of the present – knowing that the battle for equity in education continues more than four decades later and is still far from being won.

 A longtime Wilmington resident, Coker recalls the first day of desegregation in 1978, when she drove one of her daughters to the suburban school the girl would attend, first driving past their neighborhood school, Harlan Elementary, just a few blocks from home, to look at the brand new playground equipment that had just been installed.

“We parents had worked for two years to get that playground equipment,” but had not succeeded, she says. “As soon as the kids from the suburbs came in, it got installed.”

Desegregation, Coker and others say, marked the beginning of the marginalization of Wilmington parents as advocates for bettering the education of their children.

"At first, some African American parents thought this would be better for their children, but no one was thinking of it culturally." - Bebe Coker, Wilmington education advocate

The original desegregation plan, creating a single school district for northern New Castle County and a 9-3 assignment plan, with Wilmington students attending suburban schools for nine years out of 12 and suburban students attending city schools for three years. “At first, some African American parents thought this would be better for their children, but no one was thinking of it culturally,” Coker says.

For many low-income Wilmington families, that put schools out of reach for parents who might have gone to PTA meetings and teacher conferences except that they had to rely on public transportation in an era when few bus routes were running after the evening rush hour. In addition, because of widespread opposition to busing, city parents did not always feel welcome at suburban schools. 

“We’d arrange to have buses pick up parents on (Wilmington’s) East Side, but we’d only have two or three people on the buses,” Coker says.

The 9-3 arrangement might have desegregated school buildings, “but there was no regard for providing effective education regardless of your ZIP code,” she says.

Three years later, a second blow was leveled on city parents when the single district was split into four, largely because of arguments that smaller units would be easier to manage and have closer relationships with their constituents. That was true for suburban families, but it meant that Wilmington parents could no longer address a single school board with a unified voice.

“We had to deal with one school board in 1980, and a year later there were four,” says Jea Street, a longtime advocate for Wilmington students and now a member of the New Castle County Council. “Even now, 40 years later, the Colonial and Christina school boards meet on the same night each month,” making it harder to track their actions, he says.  

“Once our kids were split [into different schools], we did not feel like we were part of anything. We lost our sense of being important – to a school district, and to our community,” Coker says.

Indeed, Jeff Raffel, a retired University of Delaware faculty member who served as staff director of the Delaware Committee on the School Decision, a state-city-county group established to provide information about desegregation and assist with peaceful implementation, recalls a Wilmington parent who was a plaintiff in the court case telling him that “I never would have signed on if I had thought it would mean our children going to school in the suburbs for nine years out of 12.”

Other events – such as the School Choice Act, the Charter Schools Act and the Neighborhood Schools Act, all passed between 1995 and 2000 when Sen. Tom Carper was governor – intensified the pattern and may have also had an impact on participation by suburban families as well.

Those measures, Street notes, effectively resegregated the public schools – especially at the elementary and middle school levels – with schools in Wilmington once again becoming overwhelmingly Black in enrollment and most suburban elementary and middle schools majority white, but not overwhelmingly so because of demographic changes over the last 30 years.

On top of that, Street says, Carper engineered the addition of the secretary of education to his cabinet, making that position a political appointment rather than one controlled by the State Board of Education. “To put it politely,” he says, “he told parents to pound sand.”

Jeff Raffel, a retired University of Delaware professor whose book, “The Politics of School Desegregation,” analyzed the turbulence of the 1970s, has kept his focus on education and social issues in the years since then. He brings up several episodes that hint at suburban dominance of school groups and possible reasons for a decline in parent advocacy.

When desegregation began, his oldest child was assigned to a school in Wilmington, and Raffel went, with some apprehension, to the first meeting of that school’s Citizens Advisory Committee, a panel created to advise the school’s principal. “I got there, and there were six members of the committee – all Ph.D.’s that I knew from suburbia.”

Later, he would head the CAC at Newark High School for a year. “I don’t remember participation by Wilmington parents,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”

Nearly 20 years ago, he says, when his family was living on a cul de sac with 15 to 20 homes in Newark’s Fairfield subdivision, “every kid on the block was going to a different school,” whether it be traditional public, charter, Catholic or independent private.

"Parents often focus on moving their children from school to school to find satisfaction with policies and services, rather than advocating for improved ones." - State Sen. Elizabeth "Tizzy" Lockman.

Raffel’s point was this: there may have been neighborhood schools at the time, but families were choosing other options for their children, and the abundance of alternatives diminished many communities’ incentive to rally around their neighborhood schools.

A related factor, Raffel says, is that when parents select a school outside their neighborhood for their child to attend – whether it’s a charter, via choice or another option – they’re doing so because they’re expressing confidence in that particular program. “Once you’ve made that choice,” he says, “you’re less likely to be critical, less likely to be involved.”

State Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, echoes Raffel’s observation. “Parents often focus on moving their children from school to school to find satisfaction with policies and services, rather than advocating for improved ones,” she says. “We end up with schools lacking in advocate-parents, and heavy on inadequate services and policies.”

One outcome of these developments, says Laurisa Schutt, former director of the Delaware office of Teach For America, has been “years of unintended consequences.”

Adds Thère du Pont, president of the Longwood Foundation and son of former Gov. Pete du Pont, “at some point the public decided it had lost influence in the K-12 education system.”

Schutt, as executive director, and du Pont, as a board member, are now involved with a new organization, First State Educate, whose goals include training, informing and empowering adults to become effective citizen advocates within the education sector.

The challenges education advocates face today are reminders of the unsuccessful battles fought in years past, Coker says.

She refers to a 1984 report from the Governor’s Task Force on Education and Economic Growth, on which she served. Goals listed in the report included: raising student achievement levels, strengthening the curriculum, improving compensation for teachers and principals, strengthening parental involvement and improving the school finance system.

“All these years later, it’s all still the same darn thing,” she says.

The details associated with some issues have changed somewhat, but the themes remain the same.

In the desegregation era, one focus was on whether largely minority, inner-city students were receiving the same quality of education as their suburban peers. Now, the concern is that low-income students, regardless of where they live, are not performing as well as their middle-class peers on state assessments.

Another big desegregation-era issue was “leveling up” the pay of suburban teachers to match the higher salaries of their Wilmington peers. Today, the issue is a pattern of less experienced teachers, who earn less, being disproportionately assigned to buildings with the highest populations of students with academic deficiencies.

In the interim, numerous other commissions have examined these issues, but with minimal impact.

Street points to “They Matter Most,” a 2001 report mandated by the Neighborhood Schools Act; the 2008 Wilmington Education Task Force study and the 2015 final report by the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee (WEIC).

“They all said we needed weighted funding” – additional money to meet the needs of low-income and special education students and English learners – “and to reduce the number of districts in Wilmington” – the city is now served by five districts plus about a dozen charter schools in and near the city – “but nothing has happened,” Street says.

"They all said we needed weighted funding and to reduce the number of districts in Wilmington, but nothing has happened." Jea Street, New Castle County Councilman and Wilm. education advocate advocate

The struggle for improvements achieved its high-water mark in March of 2016, when the State Board of Education endorsed legislative proposals drafted by WEAC’s successor, the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, that would have added weighted funding and shifted Wilmington schools and students in the Christina School District into the Red Clay Consolidated School District. At the time, the state board’s 4-3 decision was cited as the first affirmative state vote to improve education standards for low-income children since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in May 1954.

But the proposals died three months later in the General Assembly, victimized by a state budget crunch and, according to Street, opposition from lawmakers who represented portions of the Red Clay district.

The reform efforts remain alive, but now they’re in the hands of yet another state-created entity, the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity, which is expected to offer fresh proposals early next year.

That 25-member panel, like so many others before it, is dominated by educators, lawmakers and leaders of businesses and nonprofit organizations. There are two seats designated for parent representatives.

“Wilmington parents (and educators) are exhausted by a lack of results and actions by those in positions to make those decisions,” says Lockman, an education advocate before being elected to the Senate in 2018 and now, as co-chair of the Redding Consortium, one of “those in positions to make those decisions.”

More often than not, she adds, parents “are not effectively engaged” in these processes.

Coker, pushing nearly a half-century as an advocate, laments that she’s still at work, and has no intention of giving up.

“We talked a good game, but we aren’t implementing and doing,” she says. “We just haven’t done that.”

Next week: A new generation of advocates


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