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Education advocacy takes many forms in the First State

Delaware Public Media

Two weeks ago, The Green began a two-part look at education advocacy - specifically the people beyond state officials, school officials and lawmakers that are trying to make a difference.

The first part examined historical efforts to advocate for change in education.

This week, Delaware Public Media contributor Larry Nagengast looks at the current state of education advocacy.

Education reform advocates cheered earlier this month when Gov. John Carney and representatives of the Delaware NAACP and Delawareans for Educational Opportunity announced they had reached a mediated agreement to the portion of a high-profile Court of Chancery suit challenging the state’s school funding system.

But they also acknowledged that the settlement was, in one advocate’s words, “only the end of the beginning” and that much more needs to be done.

As Delaware’s bumpy struggle with education reform continues, new advocacy groups are making an appearance, with attempts at collaboration occurring in multiple forms.

“Organizing is hard…. There is not a cohesive landscape,” says state Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat who formerly directed the now-dormant Parent Advisory Council on Education (PACE) initiative at the Christiana Cultural Arts Center.

In recent years, there has been general agreement on the state’s primary education needs – closing the “achievement gap” between more affluent students, largely White and Asian, and those from low-income areas, largely Black and Latinx. But there are differences in perspective that go with the territory the advocates inhabit.

At the grassroots, the school and community level, advocates see the need for smaller class sizes, more experienced teachers and better services for English learners and other children with special needs. With the Covid-19 pandemic, pleas for better access to the internet and help with understanding new methods of online learning have grown, and so have requests for schools to return to fulltime in-person instruction.

At the “grasstops,” within the business-oriented and nonprofit organizations that promote reform, leaders recognize these needs but agonize over the best methods for delivering expanded services and, most importantly, how to pay for them.

"The assumption is that people who are educating their children know better than I do. Parents say 'I don't know what I'm supposed to be demanding.'" - Laurisa Schutt, First State Educate Exec. Dir.

All that talk, however, hasn’t gotten very far – with the state’s failure to act leading to the lawsuit being filed nearly three years ago and then the mediated settlement announced on Oct. 12. “It’s not going fast enough – or with the urgency we need,” says Daniel Walker, executive director of Delaware CAN, an advocacy group that focuses on grassroots mobilization.

“Education issues are highly complex,” adds Drew Serres, executive director of Network Delaware, founded in 2017 to train individuals interested in community engagement.

“There’s a need for a combination of grassroots and ‘grasstops,’” says Paul Herdman, president and CEO of Rodel, the education-centric organization positioned at the upper end of the “grasstops” that he describes.

However, parents often lack the confidence to discuss important but complex issues, says Laurisa Schutt, executive director of First State Educate, a new organization that aims to build a network of reform advocates. “The assumption is that people who are educating their children know better than I do. Parents say ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to be demanding…. I don’t trust myself to know.’”

First State Educate is trying to position itself as a “power organization” that works at both ends of the advocacy spectrum. Its board of directors, which includes prominent business leaders and Thère du Pont, president of the Longwood Foundation and son of former Gov. Pete du Pont, makes it an instant player among the “grasstops,” while offering training to empower parents, especially in low-income communities, as grassroots advocates.

“Our board members, they’re establishment, they’ve seen education reform, education plans over the years, and they know why things haven’t worked,” says Laurie Jacobs, the groups communication manager. What’s missing, she says, are “the people aspects of the reform.”

At the organization ramps up, it will begin by focusing on parents recommended by school leaders, especially in charter schools, Schutt and Jacobs say. The training will give parents a better understanding of education issues and instruction in communications skills.

“We hope to see them advocating for changes in their schools. If they can make changes in their schools, then they can make changes in their districts, and at the state level,” Jacobs says.

“Everyone is talking about the same things, but we’re just not receiving the same opportunities and resources,” says Xavia Mills of Wilmington, one of the parents being trained through First State Educate. She’s trying to start her own network, called Delaware Excel. Likely priorities, she says, include a focus on the “digital divide,” the lack of access to the internet and shortage of computer skills, interrelated problems common in low-income communities, and encouraging educators to visit families of special education students in their homes, so they can get a better look at individual needs.

Taking an approach similar to First State Educate is Delaware CAN (the acronym stands for Campaign for Achievement Now), which was launched in 2017. It is part of a national network called 50CAN. Walker says the group has about 3,500 supporters, primarily through social media, and has already trained about 175 parents and high school students on how to become better advocates.

"Everyone is talking about the same things, but we're just not receiving the same opportunities and resources." - Xavia Mills, Wilmington parent

Walker sees similarities with First State Educate in terms of the groups’ goals, but he says Delaware CAN works primarily at the local level while First State Educate is oriented more toward larger policy issues.

Still in the mix among education advocates is that old standby, the Delaware PTA, an 8,000-member affiliate of the 123-year-old national organization. Yvonne Johnson, vice president for advocacy at both the state and national levels, says the PTA has made its voice known on many important issues, including institutional racism, the reopening of schools and remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, safe schools and gun control.

While most of these stances reflect the state unit’s adoption of national positions, Johnson notes that the state PTA has taken stands on matters unique to Delaware as well, such as reducing the term length for school board members from five years to four and supporting special education funding for children in kindergarten through third grade, which became one of the key items in the school finance suit settlement.

Five years ago, the state PTA successfully lobbied for passage of a state law permitting parents to have their children opt out of annual standardized testing, but the measure was vetoed by former Gov. Jack Markell.

“The big thing [for the PTA] is to educate parents on the issues so they can mobilize,” Johnson says.

Despite the stands it has taken, many view the PTA less as an advocate and more as a fundraising and support arm for individual schools.

“We’ve had PTAs in our schools for a long time, but they haven’t fixed problems in our communities,” says Mills, the Wilmington parent.

“The PTA just isn’t there to demand rigor and excellence,” Schutt says.

"Parents tend to get involved only when it affects their child. That's why reopening plans energized so many people." - Yvonne Johnson, Delaware PTA

Nor is a PTA likely to wade into an issue that could cause divisions among its constituents, says Linda Reagan, a PTA member at the Cab Calloway School of the Arts and leader of the Facebook group Red Clay Families for Success, which was launched on Sept. 30 and grew to more than 730 members in less than three weeks. The group this month urged the Red Clay Board of Education to broaden its online learning offerings for students affected by the pandemic.

“I’m a mom. We as parents recognize there is no one right answer. We want the school board to look at this from all sides and come up with better solutions,” Reagan says.

Both Reagan and Jessyi Wolf, who handles the group’s communications, are uncertain whether the organization will evolve into a durable entity once the online learning issue is resolved. Wolf, who has a child in kindergarten at Linden Hill Elementary, says she is also interested in bullying issues while Reagan closely followed Red Clay’s debate this spring about whether to continue having school resource officers, a police presence, in district buildings.

“I know I’ll be going to many more meetings,” says Reagan, who noted that this month’s experience was her first foray into advocacy at the district level.

The path Reagan and Wolf followed is typical. “Parents tend to get involved only when it affects their child,” Johnson says. “That’s why reopening plans energized so many people.”

While the grassroots groups strive to build their numbers and enhance their credibility, the “grasstops” maintain a “Delaware Way”-like presence through Education Equity Delaware, a 30-member coalition that brings together groups as diverse as the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce and the Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, along with big nonprofits like the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League and the Delaware Community Foundation, and smaller groups that primarily serve the Black and Latinx communities. Those smaller groups include both First State Educate and Delaware CAN.

"People like to see others like themselves doing the work. If you see other regular folks who don't have titles taking positions, you're more likely to get involved," - Drew Serres, Network Delaware

The coalition was established in 2016 as an outgrowth of a task force created a year earlier to conduct one of the many studies of the state’s school funding system. Despite the prominence of its members, the coalition can claim only one success: advocating for passage in 2018 of a state law that increases transparency in school finances by requiring districts and charter schools to use common standards in reporting how they spend their money.

The business sector, while not considered nearly as progressive as many other members of the coalition, has significant interest in having a strong public education system because it will eventually hire many of its graduates, Thère du Pont says.

And Rod Ward, president and CEO of CSC and the Delaware Business Roundtable’s representative on the coalition’s steering committee, says the business sector believes it can be more effective in promoting change if it allies itself with nonprofits and other interest groups.

“We’ve gotten a lot smarter about how to get things done,” Ward says, pointing to collaborations with Delaware CAN and the Delaware Charter Schools Network that have been developed through the coalition.

The growth of the grassroots groups and the unity shown by the organizations within the Equity Coalition demonstrates a point that Serres of Network Delaware likes to make: “People like to see others like themselves doing the work. If you see other regular folks who don’t have titles taking positions, you’re more likely to get involved.”

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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