The Delaware Senate Education Committee tackled the 5 mile radius bill today with some explosive comments from Senator David Sokola, mostly in response to a public comment. Warning: some of the comments conveyed today will get people very angry.
There are times when I have to jump through the “3rd wall” when I write blog posts because I’m actually a part of the story. This is what sets bloggers apart from traditional media as we are not bound to the same constraints as traditional journalists. I say this because it was my public comment that set off a forty minute conversation about Christina School District vs. Newark Charter School.
House Substitute 1 for House Bill 85 was heard in the committee today. The bill would eliminate the charter school enrollment preference of a 5 mile radius entirely. But the controversial part of the bill is that any part of a district that is not attached to the whole district would disallow those students from getting a preference for a charter school. Which only applied to the Christina School District. Which prevents Christina’s Wilmington Christina students from getting any weighted preference to Newark Charter School even though the school is IN the Christina School District. I gave the following public comment which set off, what I believed, a controversial but necessary conversation about the Christina School District and Newark Charter School.
*Note: in my public comment, I mentioned the Substitute Bill changed the bill in adding the portion of Christina. I was incorrect with this. In the original draft of the bill, before it was given a number, it did not have that wording. Once it was shared with Senator Sokola, he insisted on that wording.
I am here today to speak in opposition to HS1 for Senate Bill #85. Had it stayed without the substitute, I would be the biggest cheerleader in the world for the bill. But, and while I would hope it was not the intent, the optics on the bill now throws Delaware back to a time we should be leaping away from. By not including the Wilmington Christina Students, we ARE creating de facto segregation. While the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission delivered an option to take care of this part of the district, it was not approved and written into Delaware state code. Therefore, based on a judge’s decree, Delaware must adhere to the ruling delivered to them decades ago for the districts where they stand now- four districts within Wilmington. To do so otherwise would be against that ruling.
I understand there is legislation floating around right now that would create a district consolidation task force, but nothing will happen during this half of the legislative session. Perhaps it could eventually change this portion of the Christina School District. But since the Wilmington Christina students are a part of the district, we must offer them equal opportunity with this legislation. We must not skirt around what is right to benefit one charter school in one school district. While many will argue over how Newark Charter School’s demographics came to be, they are woefully insufficient compared to ALL areas of the Christina School District, whether it is within the 5 mile radius, the Greater Newark area, and the entire district.
As well, we are denying the Wilmington Christina taxpayers the chance for their children and grandchildren to have the same opportunity as the rest of the district.
Should this bill pass, it would open the State of Delaware to a very expensive and time-consuming law suit by civil rights groups who would argue this General Assembly created a situation which results in de facto segregation.
For far too long, I have seen legislation that seems to benefit the largest charter school in the state which just so happens to be in the same Senate district Senator Sokola resides in. While some could say this is coincidence, I see this is a continuing conflict of interest, especially since Senator Sokola once served on the Board of Directors of this school and helped to create the school. With all due respect to Senator Sokola, I would ask that he step down as Chair of the Senate Education Committee if he is not able to support legislation that would benefit ALL Delaware students as opposed to a small portion that just so happens to have votes within his own Senate District. Thank you.
Sokola immediately responded to my public comment. He stated the WEAC committee specifically said they thought Christina School District should not be a part of Wilmington. Flat-out. He acknowledged he did serve on their board for two years as did three other Delaware legislators. Sokola argued that the original bill, prior to his involvement, would not have given any school district a preference for charter schools because it wipes away the 5 mile radius completely. Since Christina didn’t authorize NCS, any district student is free to apply to the school. He also said that since two other Wilmington charters have a 5 mile radius, First State Montessori Academy and EastSide Charter School, the Greater Newark area students would not be given preference as well to those schools since they are not a part of the non-congruous part of the district.
Sokola is correct with that, however, First State Montessori has a top preference showing specific interest in the school which is the first of their enrollment preferences. I am not sure how many students in the Greater Newark area have shown interest in attending EastSide Charter School (which is actually located in the Brandywine School District).
He said the lottery system Newark Charter School uses is the fairest in the state. He said he has seen it firsthand and they actually kick out any applicants who rent out their homes but do not reside in the five mile radius.
The Senator went into, what appeared to be, a very frustrated speech about how the Christina School District has buildings they don’t need. He actually said the words “Christina should give one of their buildings to Newark Charter School.” He said the whole purpose of the charter school law was for more parental involvement in schools. And here I thought the purpose was for districts to replicate the charters, but I digress. In an odd comparison, Sokola used Northstar Elementary School as an example of a school in a district getting it right. He cited how they have seven nationally certified teachers and they serve students better. I have been to Northstar, very recently, and this is in a much more affluent area. I saw more expensive cars there than I’ve seen at a school in a long time. By constantly failing to factor in socio-economic conditions for a school’s success, Sokola will ALWAYS lose this argument with me.
Transportation issues came up with sending Wilmington kids to Newark Charter School. Since I had already given my public comment, I was unable to add that Newark Charter School has benefitted immensely from the Charter School Transportation Slush Fund to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for the past three years. Senator Bryan Townsend said he found it to be “completely immoral” for Wilmington students to be bussed to Greater Newark area schools but not have a bus go to Newark Charter School. He acknowledged how current law is written about parents needing to bring their child to the closest point within the feeder pattern of the charter school or the district, but also said we needed to change that for all students.
Both Townsend and Senator Anthony Delcollo brought up the legality and the optics of this bill. Both said it doesn’t look good to take a chunk of a school district and exclude them from an equal opportunity to get into one charter school. Delcollo brought up how Christina is the ONLY school district this applies to. Delcollo said this bill puts a huge spotlight on this issue. He said this could create a “disparate impact” which is defined as this:
Disparate impact in United States labor law refers to practices in employment, housing, and other areas that adversely affect one group of people of a protected characteristic more than another, even though rules applied by employers or landlords are formally neutral.
Townsend and Senator Jack Walsh said they have constituents in the five mile radius and outside of it. Townsend said he is torn on this bill because part of his constituency would have less opportunity to get in (those within the five mile radius) while others would have a greater chance (those in his Senate district outside of the five mile radius). He went a step further and expressed a desire for the Wilmington legislators “to lead the issue” to have Christina Wilmington students in the same preference for Newark Charter School. Townsend made it a point, on several occasions, to say none of these issues were the fault of Newark Charter School.
Delcollo brought up the letter from State Reps. Charles Potter, Stephanie Bolden, and John Kowalko, along with the President of the Delaware NAACP, asking for Attorney General Matt Denn to produce a legal opinion on the bill. In the discussion, he brought up the ACLU as well as the NAACP and how it looks if the bill passes. Ultimately, Denn was not able to offer a legal opinion because of precedent on this issue, but did state his office agreed with the Enrollment Preference Task Force’s recommendation to do away with any school having a 5 mile radius.
Sokola felt letting the Christina Wilmington students into NCS would be “putting a burden on a successful school.” He stated he was “tired of it” and we need to find a way to replicate successful schools. This led to Einstein’s definition of insanity as “you can’t get better results doing the same thing“. Both Townsend and Sokola expressed frustration with how Christina students are educated. Sokola said “What is mind-boggling to me is Red Clay, Colonial and Brandywine are doing good things and they are drawing kids back…we have one district that is not doing it and one charter school that is.”
Townsend said he has not been “in a position to get along” with the Christina School District and their Board of Education in recent years. Sokola as well brought up the district and board as being difficult to deal with. Townsend said Christina did not respond to principal needs and frustrations over the years. He said people cried out for this and the district and board didn’t respond unless results came from an attack by the Delaware Department of Education.
Sokola argued that if Delaware is ever going to be sued in a big way it will be for a lack of equitable funding and indicated he would welcome that lawsuit. “We should have funding follow the kids, not the units.”
While there was no yelling or interrupting members of the public at this meeting as there was two years ago during the House Bill 50/Opt Out saga, there was definitely a feeling of frustration on Sokola’s part. I feel, and have always felt, that Sokola’s priority list in Legislative Hall when it comes to education is #1: Newark Charter School, #2: other charter schools, and down the list, #3: the rest of the schools. Sokola has always felt that “successful schools” are led by great teachers. While there is some truth in that argument, there are also the issues of what comes into the schools: students with disabilities, home neglect and abuse, poverty, English Language learners, violence, and so much more. I accept that Newark Charter School does a better job with school climate to varying degrees than Christina School District. However, because of their student population not having even close to the same amount of those issues, are they truly a more successful school? Sokola actually answered that question by using Northstar Elementary in Red Clay as an example. Successful teachers, under Sokola’s definition, seem to gravitate toward schools that do not have large subgroups of students. If those seven nationally certified board teachers at Northstar went to Warner Elementary School in Wilmington for a year, would they be as successful? If Newark Charter School had an equal amount of student populations as the rest of Christina, would they be as successful as Sokola boasts they are?
By the end of the discussion, there was a potential of a change in the wording of the bill, but nothing was set in stone for that. Sokola indicated the bill would circulate for signatures from members of the Senate Education Committee. The bill was released from the committee, with four voting to release the bill “on its merits”. This places the bill on the Senate Ready List for a full vote by the Senate. In the Delaware Senate, only the Committee Chair can put it on the agenda for a full vote. Which would be Senator David Sokola for HS1 for House Bill #85.
Sokola did thank everyone for public comment even though they may not always agree. I appreciate that, I really do. But my sole intention with my public comment was to give a stern warning to this committee, to actually protect Delaware from a lawsuit that will no doubt come if this bill passes. It was my way of giving a heads up that no matter what the intentions are, this looks really ugly. I have no doubt we will find out in the coming weeks if the Delaware Senate agrees with me or not.
I do wish Sokola would step down as Chair. By failing to look at certain realities of education, he fails to understand the dynamics of the Christina School District. I’m not saying Christina is perfect. I’m not saying other districts are better. Each district has its own set of issues and problems. By constantly comparing Christina to Newark Charter School the way he was today, THAT is what sets up the whole us vs. them mentality, not the other way around. The Senator Sokola I saw today was very different than the one projected at an education forum at Newark High School two and a half weeks ago. His comment today about Christina giving away one of their buildings to Christina is one for the record books. Had Sokola given that comment at that forum, in front of hundreds of Christina parents, students, and teachers, he would have been booed out of the auditorium. The frightening thing is I think Sokola REALLY believes what he is saying. But he only sees part of the issues, not the whole picture. But more than that, there was not one mention of any other school district aside from those surrounding Wilmington and Newark.
Delaware Charter Schools Network Executive Director Kendall Massett supported the bill and Sokola said she and other charter schools helped in the formulation of the House Substitute. A representative from the Delaware State Education Association argued against the bill for similar reasons as I gave in my public comment.
In terms of the district consolidation bill I mentioned earlier, there should be legislation coming out very soon creating yet another task force to look at getting this done. I strongly suspect it will have State Reps. Earl Jaques and Mike Ramone.