With a hearing Tuesday night that drew 45 speakers to Legislative Hall, the House Education Committee took its first uncertain steps toward legislation to improve the state’s regulation of charter schools.
The hearing, which Rep. Terry Schooley (D-Newark), the committee chair, said she believed was the first devoted specifically to charter schools since the current law was passed in 1995, came on the heels of heated debates on the future of the Newark Charter School and the Campus Community Charter School in Dover.
Before the hearing, Schooley said she did not know what provisions might be included in any reform legislation and she said she wasn’t certain whether legislation could be approved before the General Assembly session ends June 30.
“Whatever we do, I want it to be holistic and collaborative,” she said. “I hope at the end of the night we have a better sense of what the issues are.”
By the conclusion of the hearing, there had been movement in that direction.
Speakers at the hearing helped bring some issues into focus, as they raised concerns about current procedures for authorizing charters, monitoring them and approving renewals, the need to consider the impact of proposed charters on existing schools in the same community, disparities in funding between charters and traditional public schools, and whether charter schools’ populations are representative of the communities in which they are located.
Charter schools are independent public schools, free of most state and school district rules and regulations, that are encouraged to use different, innovative or proven teaching and learning methods. Their goal is to provide improved school and student performance and to give parents and students greater opportunities in choosing public schools. There are 22 charter schools, with about 10,000 students enrolled, operating in Delaware this year.
As the session drew to a close after nearly two and a half hours, Schooley announced that House Speaker Robert Gilligan (D-Sherwood Park) had agreed to create “a blue-ribbon committee or task force,” with Schooley as its chair, to study an overhaul of the current charter school law. The panel would include members of the House and Senate, representatives of the Department of Education and Gov. Markell’s office, leaders of charter schools and traditional school districts and other stakeholders. It will likely take a week or two to get the group organized and determine its scope, Schooley said.
One of the final speakers at the hearing hinted at the difficulties the panel will face and the importance of its decisions.
“I am saddened by the uninformed half-truths spoken tonight by both sides [supporters of charter schools and traditional districts],” said Gary Duren, whose credentials demonstrate that “I have lived and am living on both sides.” Duren is a middle-school teacher in the Caesar Rodney School District, a member of the Delaware State Education Association executive board, a member of the MOT Charter School Board of Directors and a parent whose children have attended charter schools and special education programs in traditional public schools.
“Dig deep on your questioning…. Research just the opposite of what you’re being told,” he urged the lawmakers at the hearing. And, he said, “when you act, act quickly. Our state cannot take this divisiveness much longer.”
That divisiveness was evident throughout the hearing, as nearly 20 of the speakers had some connection with either the Newark Charter School or the Christina School District, with many of the Christina supporters repeating claims made in the two months that Newark Charter’s plan to add high school grades (approved two weeks ago by the State Board of Education) would weaken the district’s three traditional high schools.
Paul Baumbach of Newark, in a statement read on his behalf by Eva Peterson, asserted that the State Department of Education was responsible for Newark Charter’s expansion becoming so controversial. “DOE’s application of the law is poor,” said Baumbach, who is president of the Progressive Democrats for Delaware. “Its accountability committee takes minimal public input when receiving an application, and they far too narrowly apply the existing approval criteria.”
Greg Meece, head of the Newark Charter School, said that charter schools “are headed in the right direction,” and claimed that they have been at the forefront of reform initiatives, including being the first to embrace accountability in performance, accountability and incentive pay for teachers, flexibility in spending and increasing parental participation in decision-making.
Several speakers discussed charter school issues in Kent County, with Capital School District Superintendent Michael Thomas noting that after voters had approved a referendum to spend $114 million to build a new Dover High School, the State Board of Education was preparing last year to consider applications for two new charter high schools in the district without reference to their possible impact on Dover High. The applications were eventually withdrawn but are likely to be refilled later this year, another speaker said.
“Charter schools cause districts to spread their limited resources even further,” added Dr. Linda Murray Jackson, a parent of a Dover High School Student.
The only Sussex County voices at the hearing came from staff and parents affiliated with Sussex’s only charter, the Sussex Academy of Arts and Sciences middle school. Those speakers were uniformly supportive of the school and minimized any suggestion of conflict with traditional public schools in the county. “We don’t see ourselves as competitors in the public school environment, but as collaborators,” said Mark Cook, a member of the academy’s board of directors.