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Battle brewing over proposed charter school moratorium

charter-applications.jpg
Delaware Public Media
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What seemed like an unlikely battle over charter schools last month has suddenly turned into a blistering war of words, with the next skirmish likely to occur Wednesday afternoon in Dover, when the House Education Committee meets in Legislative Hall.

The first flareup occurred in February, when the state Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee began reviewing the Freire Charter School’s application to add a Newark-area school to the high school it already operates in Wilmington after the school board of the Christina School District, which serves the greater Newark area, included in legislative priorities it approved in January a request for a moratorium on state approvals of new charter schools.

At the time, State Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman (D-Wilmington), who is vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee said the legislative appetite for another charter school debate seemed “pretty weak.”

That changed last week.

On March 16, five lawmakers introduced H.B. 352, which would allow state education officials to deny a request for a charter school opening or expansion on the basis of its impact on other schools in the area where it would be located – one of the concerns mentioned by the Christina board.

The following day, H.B. 353 was introduced. That bill would create an advisory group to consider possible reforms to the charter school approval and modification process, which has undergone only minor changes since the charter law was enacted in 1995. The bill also calls for a moratorium, until the end of 2023, on charter approvals and modifications – but only in New Castle County.

Also on March 17, Freire notified state education officials that it was withdrawing its application for approval of its proposed Newark-area school. In the letter, Nate Durant, co-head of Freire Wilmington and proposed head of the new school, cited an “’us’ versus ‘them’ feeling” within the education community.

Durant did not elaborate and declined a request for an interview, so it remains unclear whether Freire’s decision was related to the introduction of the legislation or merely a coincidence.

Keeley Powell, president of the Christina Board of Education, said she was surprised to learn that Freire had withdrawn its application. Nor was she expecting the bills that were introduced last week. “I was not consulted [by any legislators],” she said. “This has really evolved quickly.”

The war of words

More details could emerge Wednesday afternoon, when H.B. 353 is one of four bills on the agenda for the House Education Committee meeting.

However, Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, said in an interview Tuesday that “the legislators did this on purpose” to block Freire.

“Our charter leaders and educators need to be focused on moving our students forward, instead, they must spend their time fighting off attacks from those that hate our schools just because we are different.”
Kendall Massett, Delaware Charter Schools Network exec. director

The interview followed statements Massett made in an email to Delaware Public Media on Sunday night.

“Legislators who benefited from school choice when it came to their own education and/or their children’s education have chosen to introduce legislation that would eliminate those choices for other families,” she wrote. That comment referred to State Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton, (D-Bear) a graduate of the Charter School of Wilmington, and to Lockman, whose daughter graduated from the same school in 2021.

“H.B. 353 is not an ‘anti-charter bill,’ which it has been
inaccurately and unfairly labeled as,” Wilson-Anton responded. “Delaware is fortunate to have some very strong charter schools … but we have also seen numerous charters close just years after opening their doors.”

Later in the email, Massett wrote: “Our charter leaders and educators need to be focused on moving our students forward, instead, they must spend their time fighting off attacks from those that hate our schools just because we are different.” Asked Tuesday to identify those who hate charter schools, she spoke broadly of officials and supporters of the Christina School District and three Democratic legislators – Reps. Kim Williams (D-Stanton), the chair of the House Education Committee; and John Kowalko (D-Newark) and Paul Baumbach (D-Newark).

“They are just not good people,” Massett said Tuesday. She claimed later that she was referring only to charter opponents in the Christina district, and not to the lawmakers.

“I do not hate charter schools,” Williams responded, adding “it’s hard to fight lies.”

Williams pointed out that she is a longtime supporter of the state’s choice system, which creates a modified open-enrollment system for both traditional and charter schools, and cited her record, both as a legislator and as a member of the Red Clay Board of Education, to improve programs for special needs students and to streamline school choice application and selection procedures. “I have worked all my life to make sure that things are fairer for all children,” she said.

“No one is looking to shut charter schools down. "We’re looking to improve the system for all families.”
State Rep. Kim Williams, chair of the House Education Committee

Massett, however, said she has been alarmed by “the amount of vitriol spewed at charter schools” recently, claiming it is “the most hateful language I’ve ever seen.” Members of the House Education Committee have labeled charter schools as “racist,” she said.

What H.B. 353 might do

With Freire’s application for a second school out of the picture, the issues that H.B. 353 could address, should it become law, center on the elusive goal of achieving educational equity for all students. The bill’s synopsis expresses hope that any changes that result “will improve equity and better integrate charter schools into the overall public school system … in New Castle County.”

Wednesday afternoon’s hearing will provide the first public discussion of the bill’s features.

“After 27 years, we need to step back and take a holistic look at the process we use to grant charter applications and modifications in New Castle County,” Wilson-Anton said. The “advisory group” proposed in the bill would review current procedures, make recommendations and “allow the General Assembly to make improvements in the existing system,” she said.

Massett fears that “there will be people in the room who want to tear down charter schools.” Charters enroll 17,201 students this year, about 15% of the state’s overall public school population.

The advisory group would have 14 members – two legislators, six superintendents from school districts in New Castle County, two charter school leaders, two State Board of Education members, Secretary of Education Mark Holodick and a member of the state’s Charter School Office. It would have until Dec. 1 to make its final report.

Items the group would have to address would include:

  • Whether criteria used to evaluate new charter schools and modifications should include evaluating current educational opportunities in the area where the school would be located, and the charter’s impact on other schools or programs.
  • How to ensure that families who are low-income, English learners or face transportation barriers can access the full range of educational opportunities in New Castle County.
  • Whether there should be changes in the entities empowered to authorize new charters. (Currently the Department of Education and school districts have that authority, but Red Clay is the only district that has authorized charters within its boundaries.)
  • Recommendations for improvement of the authorization and modification processes to improve equity and better integrate charters and traditional public schools.

While some of the objectives laid out in the bill – like providing equitable access for all students to all schools, and better integrating charters and traditional schools – are concepts the Charter School Network has traditionally supported, Massett says the phrasing used “looks like a lot of the boilerplate used by anti-charter groups across the country.” She claims the aim of the bill is “to make it so there aren’t any more choices.”
Powell, the Christina board president, sees things differently. She notes that enrollment projections indicate a decline in public school enrollments in New Castle County in the next 10 to 15 years. She says it’s important to determine the need for additional school buildings and worries that opening more schools with fewer students would result in a thinning of resources that would force schools to reduce their programming.

“No one is looking to shut charter schools down,” Williams says. “We’re looking to improve the system for all families.”

“I believe it’s important … to make sure we have a fair, equitable system that allows both charters and traditional public schools to be successful,” Wilson-Anton said.

Unintended consequences

While those familiar with H.B. 353 say its focus was on the possible impact of the proposed Freire Newark school on the Christina district, the bill’s current phrasing, by referring both to charter applications and modifications to existing charters, could have an impact on three other schools in New Castle County.

Eastside Charter, an elementary and middle school in northeast Wilmington, is requesting two modifications – to begin a phased increase in enrollment from 460 to 580 students starting in the fall of 2023 and to move classes for some of its students to the Teen Warehouse, a little more than a mile away, while a new STEM Hub building is under construction during the coming school year.

Academia Antonia Alonso, a dual-language elementary school now housed in a building owned by Odyssey Charter School outside Wilmington, is seeking permission to move to a new location near Newark this fall because its lease from Odyssey is expiring. To help finance the move into the new building, Academia wants authorization to increase its enrollment by phasing in sixth through eighth-grade classes over the next three years.

Odyssey, which has a K-12 program serving more than 2,000 students, has a modification request pending too. It wants authorization to enroll about 300 more students, using the classroom space being vacated by Academia Antonia Alonso.

Final decisions on these requests would normally be made at the April meeting of the State Board of Education. It is not clear what might happen with these requests if H.B. 353 passes as written, since it retroactively sets a March 1 effective date for the proposed moratorium.

State Rep. Kim Williams says she expects the bill to undergo some revisions before it gets to the House floor for a vote.

Updated: March 22, 2022 at 9:55 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include responses from State Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton.
Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.