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Battlelines drawn in latest showdown over charter schools in Delaware

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Delaware Public Media
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A bill recently introduced in Delaware’s General Assembly is reigniting the debate over charter schools in the First State.

The legislation proposes a moratorium on new charter applications and proposed modifications to existing charters – while setting up advisory group to look at the application and modification process.

This week, contributor Larry Nagengast examines the bill, the firestorm it’s created and what’s next.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss proposed charter school moratorium legislation.

The proposed legislation that one school leader described as an “existential threat” to the existence of charter schools in Delaware will be modified before it moves forward in the General Assembly, its primary sponsor says.

The legislation, H.B. 353, was introduced in mid-March and voted out of the House Education Committee last Wednesday but it’s not clear when it will be ready for debate on the House floor.

It's sponsor, State Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton (D-Bear), said this week that she will work on amendments based on comments made by charter school advocates and fellow lawmakers during last week’s committee meeting.

Madinah Wilson-Anton head shot
State of Delaware
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State Rep. Madinah Wilson- Anton

Prior to the meeting, charter leaders urged school parents to attend the hearing. In the opening of a letter to Newark Charter School Parents, Head of School Frank Newton wrote that the measure “appears to be a real existential threat to School Choice and the very existence of charter schools in the state of Delaware.” Communications to parents from other charters, including Odyssey and First State Montessori, used similar phrasing.

Wilson-Anton characterized some of these messages as “inflammatory” and, noting their similarities, suggested they may have been part of a coordinated effort, either among the schools or through the Delaware Charter Schools Network.

As originally written, Wilson-Anton’s bill would establish a moratorium on approvals for new charter schools and for modifications to existing schools, in New Castle County only, through the end of 2023. It would also create a 14-member advisory group to study current procedures for charter school approvals and modifications and make recommendations for change. One of the items designated for study is how to improve equity and better integrate charters with traditional public schools in the county.

Wilson-Anton said she will work with others on the Education Committee on several amendments. One would change the bill’s wording so that three pending requests for charter modifications – for Odyssey, Academia Antonia Alonso and Eastside Charter – would not be affected.

The moratorium on new charter schools in the county would remain, but that point may be moot because Freire Charter School, which had proposed adding a Newark site to its current Wilmington location, withdrew its application the day H.B. 353 was introduced.

A second likely amendment would adjust membership of the advisory group. The original version of the bill has six New Castle County school district superintendents and two charter school representatives. Wilson-Anton said she would look at a revision to adjust membership to reflect the current proportions of charter and traditional district students in the county.

Wilson-Anton says she will also review the recording of the committee meeting for comments on whether the moratorium and advisory group should be statewide. That could yield another amendment, which would include changing the composition of the advisory group to include representatives of Kent and Sussex counties.

“I want to see if there’s a way to make everyone happy,” Wilson-Anton says.

Charter supporters worried

Charter school advocates and leaders remain wary.

Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, said that “Should this bill pass, recommendations from the Advisory Group, while targeted at New Castle County, could impact all [23] charter schools in our state.”

Massett’s emailed statement noted that charter school officials were not involved in drawing up Wilson-Anton’s bill. “We heard during committee meeting that there could potentially be changes to the bill, but we have not seen those,” she added.

Aaron Bass, head of Eastside Charter School in northeast Wilmington, declined to comment directly on the legislation and possible amendments. “We’re looking forward to see how matters progress,” he said.

Eastside’s proposed charter modification calls for a phased enrollment increase, from 460 to 580 students, starting in the fall of 2023, and moving classes for some students to the Teen Warehouse, a little more than a mile away, for the upcoming school year while a STEM Hub building is constructed on the school’s campus.

“We definitely appreciate” Wilson-Anton’s pledge to let pending modification requests move forward, said Elias Pappas, head of Odyssey Charter School. As for the proposed advisory group and the topics it would explore, he said “there are folks on all sides [of the issues.]... We have to hear a lot more.”

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Delaware Public Media
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Odyssey Charter School is among those that could have had a modification proposal affected by HB 353's charter moratorium.

Odyssey’s proposed charter modification involves continuing the steady expansion of its Greek-themed K-12 program that now enrolls nearly 2,000 students. It plans to increase enrollment by roughly 300 students, or almost 15 percent, over the next three years.

The school has a waiting list, so the school would be meeting a demonstrated demand, Pappas said, and new enrollments would come primarily at the entry points for elementary, middle and high school – kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades.

Odyssey would accommodate that growth by using two buildings it owns that had been rented to Academia Antonia Alonso. That school’s lease expires at the end of the academic year. Academia, a dual-language elementary school, has requested a modification to move from the Odyssey campus to a Newark-area site and to add grades 6-8 over the next three years.

Decisions on the three charter modification proposals are scheduled to be announced at the May 2 meeting of the State Board of Education.

Two other pieces of legislation, H.B. 238 and H.B.352, have also stirred concern within the charter school community.

The 5-mile radius

H.B. 238, sponsored by State Rep. John Kowalko, (D-Newark) would eliminate the 5-mile radius from a school’s location as one of the preferences charter schools are allowed to use in determining enrollment. Kowalko says he expects his bill to be on the House agenda for a vote on April 5.

Only three charters currently employ this preference: Newark Charter, Eastside and First State Montessori, located in downtown Wilmington.

Kowalko, among others, has long contended that Newark Charter, located in the Christina School District and less than a mile from the Maryland state line, has used this preference to exclude district residents whose homes are in the Wilmington portion of the district and from near U.S. 40 south and east of Glasgow – areas that have significant Black and Latino populations.

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Newark Charter School
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Newark Charter School is among those that use a 5-mile radius preference for enrollment

The Christina district enrolls about 13,500 students, with more than 60 percent of that total either Black or Latino and about one-third coming from low-income families. Newark Charter enrolls nearly 2,500 students in its K-12 program, almost all of them Christina residents, but the school’s demographics contrast do not resemble the district’s. Black and Latino students comprise only 19 percent of the total, and only 6 percent come from low-income families.

The two charters in Wilmington that employ the 5-mile preference for enrollment show contrasting enrollment patterns. Data collected by the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity sets public school enrollment for children living in Wilmington at just over 11,000 – about 71 percent Black, 19 percent Latino and 63 percent from low-income households.

First State Montessori, in downtown Wilmington, enrolls about 600 students – 18 percent Black, 1.5 percent Latino and 9 percent from low-income households. The numbers for Eastside, in the city’s northeast corner come closer to matching Wilmington’s overall norms. It enrolls 474 students – 94 percent Black, 4 percent Latino and 71 percent from low-income homes.

Assessing charters’ impact

H.B. 352, sponsored by State Rep. Kim Williams, (D-Stanton) would permit the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education to deny an application for a charter school’s opening or expansion solely on the basis of its impact on the school district in which the charter school is or would be located. Currently impact on a district may be cited as a reason for disapproval only in conjunction with other factors.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the House Education Committee, which Williams chairs.

Officials in some districts, most notably Christina, have contended that the proliferation and expansion of charters has drawn students away from traditional public schools, resulting in excess classroom space and negatively impacting the districts’ ability to continue offering comprehensive academic programs.

Charter school advocates attribute Christina’s enrollment decline to subpar academic performance and weak discipline in the district’s schools and to stronger academics and more appealing educational choices in the area’s charter schools.

Appraising a charter’s impact on the district where it would be located, as Williams proposes, is “very important,” Wilson-Anton says. “We should have that conversation.”

Wilson-Anton, Williams and Keeley Powell, president of the Christina Board of Education, are among those who have been expressing concern that expanding the number of schools, whether traditional or charter, when overall enrollment trends are flat or declining would mean smaller slices of the education finance pie for all schools.

“We’ve got problems now with bus routes, with substitute teachers,” Wilson-Anton says. She questions whether the system can remain sustainable “if we allow more schools with smaller numbers of students.”

Although H.B. 353 is still in the early stages of the legislative process, Wilson-Anton believes she will be able to secure the votes needed for passage. But she is concerned by the vocal opposition coming from some charter supporters. “Sometimes,” she says, “the voices that we hear the loudest are in the minority.”

Corrected: April 4, 2022 at 11:37 AM EDT
The story previously stated the charter modifications discussed would be considered at the April 21 State Board of Education meeting. That meeting was moved to May 2 due to conflicts with spring break.
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Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.