What Is Exceptional Delaware? A Primer For New Readers And Some Changes For Old Readers

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Hello, and welcome to Exceptional Delaware.  My name is Kevin Ohlandt and I would like to introduce you to a blog about Delaware education.  For the confused among you right now, I often take for granted that folks reading this blog haven’t been around from the beginning.  In fact, most of you haven’t.  So I wanted to give a refresher for those just jumping on.

I started this blog a year and a half ago.  My original intention was to make this a blog solely about special education in Delaware.  I have a son with Tourette Syndrome and co-morbidities that accompany that primary disability.  Without going into a lot of details, he had some issues at a Delaware charter school.  He eventually changed schools, but during that journey I wasn’t satisfied with just resolving it like that.  I began to research special education in Delaware, and quickly found that the problems with special education in our state are symptomatic of a much larger disease.

I soon found myself writing his story on another great Delaware blog, Kilroy’s Delaware.  When I finished that, Kilroy suggested I start my own blog (probably so I could stop wasting space on his).  And thus, Exceptional Delaware was born.  It started out with most of the posts focusing on special education, but it quickly morphed into an almost bizarre cat and mouse game with the Delaware Department of Education.  As the months went by, I found out who all the big education players are in the state.  In a nutshell, it comes down to Governor Markell and the Rodel Foundation of Delaware.  Even bigger than that is the similar stories playing out across America.  Each state has a Markell and a Rodel.  Who do they all serve?  Wall Street.  Its called corporate education reform, and it is the single most destructive and devastating force to ever hit public education in our country.

I soon found myself walking out of the bounds of this website and involving myself in Delaware politics.  I would write about education legislation and became very involved in an opt-out bill in Delaware called House Bill 50.  The bill passed our House and Senate but Governor Markell vetoed the bill last summer.  Our General Assembly may attempt to override the Governor’s veto when they return in January which will bring about a host of articles from this blog.

Delaware spends a third of its budget on education.  It is over a billion dollars.  For a small state, with less than a million people, that is fairly significant.  Most of these funds go to our school districts and charter schools, but a large sum of it does go to our Department of Education and their host of education vendors and their attempts to “fix” a broken education system.  I put fix in quotes because I do not believe it is as broken as these entities claim it is.  The way they do this is very simple.  It’s called a standardized test.  In Delaware, along with many other states, our test is called the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  If the test wasn’t long, complicated, intrusive, destructive, disruptive, money-wasting, and made to make students, teachers, and schools feel like failures I probably wouldn’t give it the time of the day.  But it is more than these, and more.  It is the central fulcrum behind the education pirates who swarm into states and give the illusion that our schools need help.  It is a never-ending cycle that demands constant watch.  When you mix politics with big business, it is a nightmare of epic proportions.

I often feel like students with disabilities suffer the most from this drive for “rigor” and for all students to be “college and career ready”.  I don’t mind students flexing their academic muscles when they are in high school.  I am all for every student doing the best they can.  But when false paintings of success are put on a canvas, before the work is even done, I find something very wrong with that.  We can’t teach children, at school or at home, if someone else is micro-managing based on false ideology.

All too often the schools that suffer the most from this insanity are the ones with high populations of low-income, poverty, minority, and special education students.  The public is waking up more and more everyday to this reality, but occasionally carrots are thrown their way to lull them into a false sense of calm and security.  These antics could be called “assessment inventory”, or the “Every Student Succeeds Act”, or an “education funding task force”.  What the corporate privateers don’t want you to know is they want schools to fail.  They want them to always feel like they need to be fixed.  They would not make money otherwise.  This charade is supported financially by huge foundations across America, with the biggest being the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  These foundations and non-profits love their charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools, but they don’t operate the same way.  As long as they receive federal and state funding, they must behave like traditional public schools.  But all too often (not in every charter), some pick and choose who they want.  Since charters also receive local funding from the school districts students choice from, this can have a very debilitating financial effect on the local school district.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Delaware’s Christina School District, up in Wilmington.

Traditional school districts have their own issues.  Large classroom sizes, less funding from the state, and what are known as referendums.  Referendums are an election in the school district.  They are needed when the costs to run the district go past the allocated budget.  The district needs more funds from its residents to continue.  If it passes, the school uses the extra funding from property assessments and makes the necessary adjustments.  If it fails, it is very bad for the school district.  Many feel that school districts in Delaware spend far too much on administrators within their districts.  For a small state, Delaware has 19 school districts, over 25 charter schools, and a fairly large amount of private schools.  The private schools have shed students since charter schools gained in popularity beginning twenty years ago in Delaware.

For large cities like Wilmington, the factors of numerous charter schools, failed referendums, charter schools siphoning the local school districts funding, some charters taking the “best and brightest”, and standardized testing that falsely labels schools with huge populations of at-risk students as failures, results in a perfect storm of chaos and disaster.  Add in unionized teachers, teacher prep programs like Teach For America and Relay Graduate School, school boards, along with the constantly interfering Department of Education, Governor, legislators, foundations, non-profits, and the corporate education vendors, and a picture forms.  This picture shows far too many hands in education and the ones that suffer the most are the children.

This is where I come in.  I write about it all in our state.  The DOE, the Governor, Rodel, the unelected State Board of Education, charter schools, school districts, legislators, education legislation, special education, bullying, charter school financial meltdowns, standardized testing, vendor contracts, transparency, and more.  For the most part it is the chase.  The constant and never-ending quest to get information out so the public can see it, while our DOE blithely implements agenda after agenda with no one the wiser.  It is exhausting and time-consuming.  Along the way, I will write satirical articles to keep my sanity.  Sometimes, as I did recently, I will write a human interest story about one particular person.  I will branch out to national stories.  Sometimes I just break away from it all and write about myself or something as far away from education as possible.

This isn’t my blog.  This is Delaware’s blog.  One of many.  Stories are told all over The First State.  Some blogs take place on long Facebook threads.  Others are in our major media, such as the News Journal.  Media has transitioned over time into a blog-like state.  As newspapers and major media outlets are essentially run by advertisers and corporations, the unbiased feel of journalism has radically shifted from what it once was.  True journalism does exist, but all too often the sides can become blurry and tainted.  I don’t blame the newspapers and major media outlets for this.  It is evolution and survival.  This is not to say that journalism as we once knew it is dead, but it has changed.  There are still great old-fashioned journalists out there who refuse to let themselves sway from the core journalistic principles.  But in our 21st Century society, with news available the second you click something, the need for urgency has taken away from the need for unbiased clarity.

After writing at least one article a day for the past consecutive 488 days, 2,112 posts (some of which are what are called “reblogs” from other great WordPress blogs) over the past year and a half, which have received over 525,000 views, over 426,000 which were in 2015 alone, a ton of board meetings, task force meetings, legislative sessions, committee meetings, rallies, phone calls, emails, Facebook posts, tweets, research, and yes, some fun thrown in here and there, I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot on this little blog.  I never dreamed I would reach over half a million hits in this short a timeframe.  I don’t get paid for this, so it is truly a volunteer function.  I think any blogger likes to know they are being read, it is human nature.  But even more satisfying is when someone tells me “Hey, that article you did, it helped me,”  or “I was able to help my child because of what you wrote”.  That means more to me than any number.  A lot of this is never seen on here, and takes place offline.  I like that people feel they can come to me for advice about what to do.  I will flat-out tell them if I can’t help them, but I will also let them know where they can go.  Sometimes it is right back to the DOE believe it or not.

I don’t hate the DOE, or the State Board, or Rodel, or even the Governor.  I don’t hate any legislators.  I believe all humans operate on something called “tainted decency”.  We may have the best intentions or motivations, but something along the way leads to something vastly different.  For many involved in education, it is their job or business.  Their livelihood depends on the success and failure of their allotted tasks.  Intention and motivation take on a very different meaning when you have to answer to a superior.  And for some, that bait called wealth is a very dangerous and alluring call to action.  But it isn’t always the right action.  It’s called life, and I’ve gotten things wrong on here.  I’ve piped off without thinking, gotten angry, and even hurt my own reputation.  I’ve gotten mad at friends.  I know it, and at the end of the day, lying in bed with nothing but myself and my thoughts in that transition period between awake and asleep, I feel it.  There are things I regret doing during this journey.  Things I’ve said I just can’t take back.  It is very easy to tell yourself you are in the right, but if it comes at the expense of hurting another without knowing all the facts or justification (as in helping to protect the kids or parents), it can hurt.  I’ve been told I am cocky, arrogant, and ignorant.  On the flip side, which is even more dangerous in my opinion, I’ve been told I am a “savior for education”.  That frightens me more than anything.  I am no savior and I am no saint!  I’m just a dad writing.

With that being said, and I’ve said this before but not fully implemented this goal, I am going to make a concerted effort to be more careful about what I say and be less opinionated.  I’m also going to try to reach out to other parties instead of just doing the blitzkrieg article and ask questions later.  I may not agree with another person, and lets face it, many folks will outright lie when you catch them in wrongdoing, but I at least need to give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.  The caveat to this is if children or anyone is in imminent danger.  I have received information like this, acted on it, and never written about it.  I have no idea what the end results were, but I did my part.

I have one story I’ve been working on for a very long time, and I received information on it the other day that could draw it towards a conclusion, but I don’t even know if it is a story I can or even want to finish.  You see, last spring and summer someone reached out to me.  I still don’t know what their motivations were half the time, but it was meant to be in confidence.  Longtime readers know exactly who this person is.  When an issue became very blurry, I performed a very public outing of this person on here and betrayed the single most important journalistic and blogger credo: never out a source.  I let personal feelings, stemming from the fact that I felt like I was fooled and played with, cloud my judgment.  I justified it even when some were saying I was totally wrong.  I don’t agree with about 90% of what this person has to say.  I don’t like how they operate or how they go about their job.  I feel they interfere and manipulate others.  I have information that could, probably, bury this person.  And many would cheer if I did so.  But I couldn’t live with myself if I did it.  Not that way.  Not like that.  So to this person, and I hope you are reading this, I am sorry for what I did.  I still think you have some issues, and I would keep yourself in check, but your fall will not come from that.  And you can consider that chapter closed.

Does this mean I am now a Common Core Smarter Balanced Charter School Takeover of Public Education Rodel & Markell loving DOE sympathizer kind of guy?  Hell no.  None of my feelings have changed on any of it.  I will continue to write and do massive amounts of research and not get paid a penny for it.  Folks will see me, and wonder what I’m going to write.  But the feuding and animosity and vitriol coming out of me, I just can’t keep doing it like that.  It’s not good for me and it certainly isn’t good for anyone I profess to help if that is the end result.  No more email lightning strike articles.  No more outing (it was only the one person).  No more screaming at Mark Murphy and the DOE or State Senators during public comment (see many articles from April to July).  I want folks to feel they can come to me if they want to clarify something and possibly respond to me if I touch base with them or seek information on something.  Threatening and posturing, while it may have short-term benefits, does not solve problems.

If anything, I want to write more about the good out there.  Like my recent article on Braeden Mannering, a truly awesome kid with a big heart.  I have literally heard teachers tell me they had to stop reading me for a while because of all the doom and gloom I was sending their way.  I would like to believe that for every harbinger of doom article, there can be an equally positive and uplifting story.  I just have to find them and I am reaching out right here and now for others to let me know about these stories.

When it comes to education, there is no way any one person can cover everything.  It is massive in scope and reaches into all facets of society.  I find out new things every single day I didn’t know before.  It will never end, and it will never be perfect.  I’m just one writer in a long history of past, present and future writers doing their part to chronicle the events and confusion and shed some light.  If I can help others along the way, it is all worth it.

TheHeartOfTheAndes