The Sokola Williams House Bill 186 Charter Funding “Town Hall” Debate: What If We Are All Wrong?

Sometimes the best conversations happen when there is a freedom to it with no strings attached, just honest questions and answers.  Yesterday, Senator David Sokola responded to a post of Mike Matthews on Facebook about House Bill 186 and Senate Bill 171.  The two competing bills both deal with charter audits. What happened next on the “debate” was pleasantly surprising.  I actually admire Sokola for entering into what I’m sure he knew could be “hostile territory” so to speak.  What ensued was very interesting.

Here is the bottom line, as I wrote in one of the final replies on this: something needs to be done to make sure the charter school fraud just stops.  We can’t have school leaders going rogue and raiding the public coffers.  It’s just wrong.  I think House Bill 186 would prevent that quite a bit.  Will it prevent any school employee from ever absconding money for personal use?  No, I don’t think anyone could ever 100% stop that.  But it is one hell of a deterrent.  There are more than enough issues with school funding in Delaware, the last thing we need is for one cent to be wasted like this.  It is criminal, it is illegal, and it needs to end.

Given all that has occurred since Senate Bill 171 was introduced last week, I would actually love to hear Kendall Massett with the Delaware Charter Schools Network response to this thread.  So I invite Kendall to comment on here.  This is not a free-for-all to jump on her should she take up the invite.  It is just a debate about the issues at hand.  If Kendall does take me up on this, I believe it could shed light on what the charters may be looking at for this.

In my opinion, the way charters were set up in Delaware is miles away from the present reality.  It is much more visible in New Castle County, but the whole traditional school district/charter school debate has morphed into something with both sides pitted against each other.  I will fully admit it’s something I’ve been guilty of.  But is it good for the education landscape of Delaware?  Should charters be funded separately from regular school districts?  But even bigger than that is the competition.  This need to be the best school in the state and all that comes with that.  Since the catalyst for that is standardized test scores, what would happen if those scores all of a sudden didn’t hold the weight they currently have?  What if schools were judged on their own merits, good or bad, based on something not so exact?

Our Department of Education, in line with the US DOE, certainly set up this kind of environment.  But let’s get real for a moment.  The traditional districts and the charters aren’t going anywhere.  I know I’ll probably get shot for even bringing this up, but a lot of us look at education in Delaware under the lens of how the charters affect the schools around them.  But I’m going to attempt to look at this from the charter perspective.  They view themselves as not getting as much money as districts, thus their assumption they do “more with less”.  In defense of that, they don’t have the sheer size and multiple capital costs the way districts do, so there is that.  Most of their teachers are not unionized, so turnover is most likely greater.  So they need to retain their good teachers and find ways to keep them and attract them to their schools.  They also need to make sure their enrollment stays at certain levels or the DOE will come after them.  To do that, they need to make their schools look as attractive as possible, so they need to sell it as such.  While some schools do indeed have enrollment preferences that are very questionable, a lot of them do not.  But still, the lure of charters for many parents is the escape from the local school districts who do “less with more”.  Most parents who are engaged at that level, and have made a choice to keep their kids out of a district, will certainly be more active in their child’s education, which results in more of a collaborative relationship between charter parents and their schools.  But the flip side to all of this, as those students who most likely have more parental engagement with their child’s education (not all) and  pull their kids out of districts, it has a rebound effect on the traditionals.  It can draw out the “better” students resulting in more issues at the local level for the remaining students.  This is certainly not the case in every school in every district, but we have seen this happen in Wilmington most of all.

So how do we get around all of this and work to make both co-exist?  The conversation gets very heated very quick with parties pointing fingers and making declaratory statements that don’t serve to solve the issues but actually polarize both sides into their position of defense.  As a result, we see legislators with differing opinions proposing laws that the other side opposes.  In the case of the charter audit bills, Kim Williams wins that one, hands down.  Will it cost charters more money?  Like I’ve said before, probably.  But we should have never reached this point.  It should have always been equitable for both when it comes to audits.  It isn’t now, and it wouldn’t be with Senator Sokola’s bill.  I’m not saying this cause I like Kim better than Dave, I’m saying it cause it makes sense.  There are some Republican bills I think make a lot of sense, and vice versa.  But let’s face it, the Democrats have controlled Delaware for a long time now, so their bills tend to get more press and traction because of that control.

This is what I would like to eventually see in the charter/traditional debate.  All schools, be it charters, magnets, or vo-techs, have no enrollment preferences whatsoever.  This would put everyone on the same level playing field.  As well, charter schools should be funded the same way vo-techs are.  But there could still be a problem of a district shedding students as we see in Christina.  How do we solve that issue?  Not an easy answer.  When districts do lose a lot of students, it is bound to cause financial concerns.  But obviously we can’t just close districts.  But we can’t let them go to the poorhouse either.  And when a referendum goes south, it doesn’t just affect the traditional school districts, it flows into charters that receive the funding for those students.

Finally, our legislators need to find a way to minimize the importance of standardized testing.  At a state level, not a district level where those assessments do actually help students.  I posted an article on American Institutes for Research last September where their CEO admits standardized testing is actually accountability tests against teachers and schools.  Because our states and federal government have allowed this to happen.  They set up this crazy chess match but is very bad for schools, students, teachers, administrators, and even communities.  Whenever there are high-stakes, there are also consequences.  While some are intended, others are not.  Setting our schools up to compete against each other can bring innovation, but then it becomes a matter of “who has the better test scores?”  It’s not good, it’s not healthy, and this is leading all our students into the assumption that if they do well on a once-a -year test they are actually a success and “college and career ready”.   But even more dangerous, the schools actually think this and instruction is aimed around the test as opposed to the individual student and their own individual success.  The question that always comes up after this argument from the proponents of standardized testing is “How do we measure our student’s progress?”  There are measurements that don’t have to be the focal point of everything.  But yet our DOE has the Smarter Balanced Assessment with most of the weight on the Delaware School Success Framework.

Until we can get out of this testing obsession, nothing will ever change.  If charters and traditional school districts want to survive, they should join together to eliminate this abusive practice, not to perpetuate it.  There is no stability in it, and it is very destructive.  To those who do profit off this, they truly don’t care.  As long as they are making money.  This should be something parents of students should want as well.  They may not see it now, but they certainly will after their child graduates and they find they are really struggling in college.  This is why we are seeing more students taking college-level courses in our high schools because even the corporate education reformers know this.  But what we should really be doing is focusing less on test scores and letting children progress naturally in schools without the test stress.  So by the time they go to college, they are ready for what comes next.  College is supposed to be hard.  It shouldn’t be easy.  If we are seeing so many kids taking remedial classes, maybe this isn’t a reflection on our schools but on the emphasis society places on test scores.

For me personally, I care deeply about these issues.  Because I believe the students that pay the price the most are those who need the most.  By leading all students toward these very specific goals of “proficiency” and “growth”, we are allowing students with disabilities and those who come from poverty to start at the gate with a disadvantage.  And wanting to “close the gaps” without changing their inherent disadvantages results in an explosion just waiting to happen.  I’m not saying these kids can’t learn, or that they don’t want to learn.  But the instruction they need may not be the same for their regular peers.  If the end goal of accommodations is to make a student do better on a test, then we are losing sight of the true picture.  We can’t erase a disability or poverty in schools.  There are far too many outside factors to make that ever happen.

The charter/district debate is a systemic issue, but it is symptomatic of the far greater disease: standardized testing.  We have many excellent teachers who can become even better by allowing them to flourish in an environment that isn’t poisoned and set up as a competition.  Education isn’t a race.  It isn’t a contest.  It is education.  No child learns the same, and no child tests the same.  It needs to stop.  Until our leaders learn this, parents will continue to opt out.  At greater numbers than each year before.  Because we see it and we have the power to act on it.  Sooner or later they will get the message.  But in the meantime, the reformers and leaders continue to spin their wheels looking for the next big thing in order for them to survive.  They do not care if a school is doing bad.  They love it and they will pounce on it.  They use our schools and students so they can get rich.  And their method of measurement: the standardized test.  And far too many lap it up and believe it.