Seventeen years after it was signed in 1995, Delaware’s charter school law may be getting an overhaul.
Gov. Jack Markell plans to appoint a working group to review the current law and recommend ways to improve it. The panel will be appointed soon and should complete its work before the General Assembly reconvenes in January, said Rebecca Taber, Markell’s education advisor.
The working group comes after two years of heated public debate over charter school issues. Last year, management and finance issues stirred controversy at the Reach Academy for Girls, a charter school in Claymont, and at the Pencader Charter High School, located near New Castle, which offers a business-oriented curriculum. This spring, the Newark Charter School’s plan to add high school grades, eventually approved by the State Board of Education, laid bare divisions between pro- and anti-charter forces, not only in the Newark area but throughout the state. And Pencader’s management has become embroiled in another dispute this summer, this time over reclassifying several teachers as “independent contractors.”
The divisiveness came to head May 1 at a special House Education Committee hearing prompted by the Newark Charter debate. Gary Duren, among the last of 45 speakers at the hearing, told legislators he had been “living on both sides” as a parent, public school teacher and charter school board member, and criticized supporters of charters and traditional school districts for speaking “uninformed half-truths.” He urged lawmakers to “act quickly” because “our state cannot take this divisiveness much longer.”
As the hearing closed, state Rep. Terry Schooley (D-Newark) announced that House Speaker Bob Gilligan (D-Sherwood Park) would appoint a committee to study the issues. But it was never formed, and Schooley and Gilligan have since announced their retirement from the General Assembly, so the job of creating a group to review the charter school issue fell to Gov. Markell.
A series of interviews with a cross-section of education officials demonstrated a willingness to give the law a careful review, but no clear consensus on what changes should be made. Several key issues did emerge. They include:
- Revising the funding system for charter schools.
- Considering the impact of new charter schools on existing public schools in the same area.
- Increasing school district and general public involvement in the charter school application process.
- Replicating successful charter school concepts within traditional public schools.
- Reviewing charter school admissions priorities or preferences that are provided in the current law.
In addition, some charter school leaders would like lawmakers to take a second look at how charter schools have been affected by education laws passed in the last 10 years or so. They assert that requirements in these new laws apply to charter schools, depriving them of the freedom from many state regulations that they were given when the charter law was passed in 1995.
“I’d like to see us go back to what the original legislative intent was, and not steadily creeping toward more regulations,” said Greg Meece, who recently completed his term as president of the Delaware Charter Schools Network. Meece is director of the Newark Charter School.
When the law was written, “it was considered to be one of the best charter school laws,” Meece said. But, most of those interviewed agreed, enough has changed in the past 17 years to justify taking a fresh look at the law.
Updating the law, coupled with a new “performance framework” that sets academic, administrative and financial objectives, should improve the Department of Education’s oversight of charter schools, Deputy Secretary of Education Dan Cruce said.
Here is a look at issues the working is likely to review.
Funding: Charter schools receive state funds for day-to-day operations through the state’s complex unit system, which is based on the number of students enrolled at specified grade levels and any special educational needs. However, the per-pupil payment charters receive from the student’s home district is less than the district’s local per-pupil expense, because payments are based on the previous year’s average and some spending categories are excluded from the calculation. Charter schools would like to see this formula adjusted so the money they get more closely approximates the home district’s per-pupil costs, Meece said.
Delaware Charter Schools Network executive director Kendall Massett discusses issues facing state charter schools.
A larger issue involves funding for capital expenses, like building construction and lease payments. Unlike regular public schools, charter schools cannot finance capital projects through referenda and state bond issues. As a result, the money needed to pay capital expenses must come out of the operating budget. Capital costs account for about 20 percent of a typical charter’s budget, said Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network. So, she explained, if a public school’s per-pupil cost for operating expenses is $10,000, a charter school is working with about $8,000 per student.
The capital funding restrictions were part of “a tradeoff” made in 1995 in exchange for freedom from some state regulations, Cruce said. The tradeoff made sense then but “there are some folks in the charter community who are saying it doesn’t make sense 15 years later,” he said.
Meece said in 1995 there were vacant school buildings available for possible use by charter schools. He also said regulations imposed since then have limited charters’ flexibility.
Rep. Earl Jaques (D-Glasgow) offers his opinions on increasing public input on charter applications.
Public and school district comment on applications: When Newark Charter’s expansion proposal was considered, some complained that the Department of Education had approved many aspects of the request before a public hearing was held. Rep. Earl G. Jaques Jr. (D-Glasgow) said he believes the public should be able to express its concerns on charter applications before they are reviewed by the Department of Education. And, he said, school districts should be required to review applications for charters located within their districts and prepare an “impact statement,” detailing how the charter would affect enrollments and academic programs within the district.
“We’re very concerned with the impact of charters on their neighboring schools,” said Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association. As examples, she pointed to charter applications filed last year for two new high schools not far from where a new 1,200-seat Dover High School will be built. (One of those applications, for the Early College High School on the Delaware State University campus, has been approved; the other application was withdrawn.)
Cruce defended the current hearing process, which allows for comment after the Department of Education review and before the State Board of Education vote. He said it’s better for the public “to comment when the facts are in … rather than multiple times when the full information isn’t available.”
Cruce supports the idea of impact statements, but said they should be focused on “the educational impact on the kids, not on the adults who are in the geographic area.”
While Jenner believes that charter school authorizers, like the State Board of Education in Delaware, should have discretion to consider community impact, Cruce said it would be “bad procedure and bad policy” to deny a charter application solely because it would draw students (and funding) away from a nearby traditional public school.
Replicating successful charter concepts: The current charter law is intended to “encourage the use of different and innovative or proven school environments and teaching and learning methods.” Many hoped that successful innovations in charter schools would find their way back into traditional public schools, although that goal is not specified in the law.
“In 17 years, I’m quite confident that there’s been no meaningful conversation about what can be learned [from charters],” Jenner said. “Someone has dropped the ball.”
“We have to break down some of the barriers in sharing practices,” Secretary of Education Mark Murphy said.
Charters and traditional districts must share the blame — the charters for not inviting the districts to learn from their successes and the districts for not reaching out, Jaques said.
Massett doesn’t think replication can be legislated. “It has to be organic,” she said. “You can’t make people talk to each other. You have to want to work together.”
Cruce said there are some examples of replication that “just fly under the radar.” He cited Stubbs Elementary in Wilmington, a partnership zone school under the federal Race to the Top school improvement program. Stubbs connected with the Sussex Academy of Arts & Sciences, a middle school charter in Georgetown, for help in developing a project-based learning curriculum.
Charlie Copeland, a former state senator and board chairman of the Delaware Academy of Public Safety & Security charter school, doesn’t think replication should be mandated by law. His solution: reduce regulations and bureaucracy in traditional schools and give principals more authority to make decisions at the building level.
Admissions priorities: Current law allows charters to give admissions preference to students who live within a five-mile radius of the school. During the Newark Charter expansion debate and at the May 1 House Education Committee hearing, critics noted that this preference could exclude Christina School District students who live in the Bear area, or in Wilmington, more than 12 miles away. Another issue that may arise is whether to continue allowing gender-specific charter schools. That option was added to allow the opening of the Prestige Academy for Boys in 2008, followed by a girls-only school, Reach Academy, two years later, but is due to expire on June 30, 2013 unless extended by the General Assembly.
Merv Daugherty, superintendent of the Red Clay Consolidated School District, the only district in the state to have used its authority to authorize charter schools, believes it’s good that the task force will sort out what’s working and what is not. “There are a lot of controversial issues here,” he said. “Let’s put them on the table and see what everyone thinks. You’re not going to please everyone.”