Chart(er)ing a new course?


In all my years of following and writing about education in Delaware, no topic stirred as much emotion as the battle over school desegregation (“forced busing” to its vehement foes). With its roots in the 1950s (a Delaware case was part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s original Brown vs. Board of Education decision, whose 60th anniversary is marked this week), the desegregation controversy divided one generation of adults while managing to bring their children closer together.

While we still hear occasional arguments about whether desegregation led to improved or decreased standards and achievement in public education, no longer is it top of mind.

The new focal point for education discussion in Delaware is, without a doubt, the charter school movement. Delaware passed legislation in 1995 authorizing charter schools — public schools that operate with fewer regulations than those in traditional districts — and its first charter, the Charter School of Wilmington (CSW) opened a year later, with backing from a half-dozen major businesses, including DuPont, Delmarva Power and Christiana Care.

The number of charters has grown steadily — 21 are now operating, three more will open their doors in the fall and up to six others could open for the 2015-16 school year. Even so, charters now enroll less than 10 percent of the state’s public school population, and the opening of new schools will take charter enrollments over the 10 percent mark, but not by much.

However, three charter schools that had been scheduled to open this August have fallen far short of their initial enrollment projections. Interestingly, all these schools are located in Wilmington, an area charter operators have long considered ripe for development because the 1978 desegregation order dissolved the city school system and resulted in long bus rides to the suburbs for most of the school lives of city residents.

The situation raises many questions. Have the charter operators overplayed their hand? Will they be able to convince parents that the alternative instructional models that they offer are indeed better than what is provided in the traditional schools?

Other questions raised years ago about charters still linger. Are they cherry-picking the most motivated children from the traditional public schools? (If they are, you might think that more charters would be replicating CSW’s now legendary off-the-charts performance in the state’s standardized testing program.) ¬†And if the charters are so innovative, why haven’t the traditional districts rushed to adopt more of their fresh approaches.

Good questions all, and we’re likely to be seeking answers for years to come.





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