Like most parents, Newark area residents Sharon Kurfuerst and Eve Buckley want the best education for their children. For Kurfuerst, that means bypassing the district high school and sending her kids to a public charter school, while Buckley’s three children are split between a Christina School District elementary school and a private school.
What Kurfuerst and Buckley both share is choice—a word that’s fueled debate since Delaware’s first charter schools opened in 1996.
Advocates say charter schools give students an alternative to the traditional learning model found in district schools.
“Charter schools aren’t changing the education landscape in Delaware; they are contributing to it by providing choice,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the nonprofit Delaware Charter Schools Network. “District schools aren’t leaving a gap; they are providing one kind of learning environment, and charters are providing another. It’s not a matter of which is more effective. It’s about what school works best for each child.”
But critics argue that academic performance at some of the state’s charter schools is the same or worse than district schools. They also claim the charter system encourages segregation, lacks accountability to taxpayers and bleeds money and the best students from district schools.
Four years ago, Kurfuerst was in a quandary. Her son, Alex, was finishing up his middle school years, and she had serious concerns about him attending Dickinson, the nearest district high school. She was afraid he would “get lost in the shuffle.”
Dickinson isn’t considered a top-performing high school. During the 2011-12 school year (the most recent data available), the Red Clay district school performed below or just met state averages in reading, math and science. In that same year, 40 percent of Dickinson’s students were suspended or expelled (compared to only 15 percent statewide), prompting parental anxiety about school safety.
Kurfuerst ultimately enrolled Alex at Delaware Military Academy, one of three charter schools authorized by Red Clay.
“My son has four years to do high school,” she says. “I can’t put him in a place that I don’t believe is providing the right education for him. [In Delaware,] we don’t have the caliber of education at the high school level that a lot of people expect. In lieu of having that, you put your kids where you think they’re going to have the best education.”
Buckley made a different choice. She’d long assumed that her elementary-aged children would eventually attend nearby Newark Charter School, until she became concerned about the school’s more affluent demographics and its effect on neighboring district schools.
“We just felt that wasn’t the way we wanted to interact with our community, to take advantage of a public service that wasn’t available to everyone, and that by its own existence was making the [district schools] available to everyone worse, causing them greater challenges,” she says.
Buckley’s youngest son began kindergarten at Downes Elementary School in August 2013, where he’s participated in a Mandarin Chinese immersion program, while her other two children attend NCCL, a private school in Newark.
Delaware’s first charter schools—the Charter School of Wilmington and Positive Outcomes Charter School in Camden—opened in 1996, starting an educational experiment in Delaware that continues today.
Gregory Meece, now director of Newark Charter School, helped found the Charter School of Wilmington at the prompting of Red Clay school officials, then-Gov. Tom Carper and the local business community. At the time, Red Clay was seeking financial help from the state government for the now defunct Wilmington High School.
“It was horrible,” Meece says of Wilmington High School’s educational environment. “When I started work there, my car was stolen the first week on the job. It was just a culture that was toxic, and nothing was going to improve it.”
Money hadn’t fixed Wilmington High’s problems in the past, so government and education officials decided to try something different. They conceived the idea of co-locating a separate, top-performing math and science high school within Wilmington High’s walls.
Six of the state’s largest employers, including the DuPont Co., provided $600,000 in seed money to start the Charter School of Wilmington.
“These companies could not get employees coming out of the school system who were proficient in math or science, or even reading, or who had good work habits, and they had concerns,” Meece explains.
As development director, it was Meece’s job to recruit students to the new charter school.
“Our job was … to attract students with successful programs, and we did just that. [Charter School of Wilmington] is now one of the top-rated schools in the country.”
Meece started by educating parents on how charter schools differ from traditional district schools.
Charter schools are independent, tuition-free public schools, authorized by either the state department of education or a local school district. In Delaware, 19 charter schools are authorized by the Delaware Department of Education, and three—Charter School of Wilmington, Delaware Military Academy and Delaware College Preparatory Academy—are authorized by Red Clay.
The term “charter” refers to the contract the school has with its authorizer, which spells out the school’s mission, programming and goals. If a school fails to meet academic, fiscal and governance standards, its charter can be revoked, and the school will be closed. Since 1996, the state has closed four charter schools for academic and financial reasons.
Most charter schools tout smaller class sizes and more individualized attention for students. Most also have specialized curricula. For example, in Delaware, there’s Odyssey Charter School, with a Greek immersion curriculum, the Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security, with a focus on preparing students for careers in public safety, and Positive Outcomes Charter School, which serves a high number of students with mental and learning disabilities.
Instead of a district school board, each charter school is governed by its own board of directors. Charter schools typically receive less state funding than district schools and are responsible for funding their own major capital improvements.
“What distinguishes charter education is autonomy,” Massett explains. “Charter schools are able to try new and innovative learning and teaching methods, which can then be shared across the entire system to drive student achievement.”
Like district schools, the curricula at charter schools must align with the state’s educational standards, students must take standardized tests and teachers must be certified.
Delaware’s charter schools are a mixed bag when it comes to academic performance. Only 38 percent of elementary-level charter schools met or exceeded average state test scores in third grade reading and fourth grade social studies during the 2011-12 school year. In seventh-grade reading and math, only 33 percent of charter schools met or exceeded state averages.
High school-level charter schools performed better than elementary and middle-school charters, with most beating state averages in reading and math.
Meece says these results are predictable.
“When the charter school law was written, no one expected all the charter schools to be successful or for them to replace the traditional schools,” he says. “The point was if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, then we’ll keep getting the same results.”
Many of Wilmington’s charter schools and those that serve special populations, like Positive Outcomes, struggle academically.
“The biggest challenge we have is just about every single student that comes to us is significantly below grade level,” explains Edward Emmett, Positive Outcomes’ director.
“Performance doesn’t always translate into a test score,” he adds. “My test score is that the kids are able to graduate and be successful.”
By that measure, Positive Outcomes has been effective. About 85 percent of the school’s students eventually graduate. (The state’s four-year graduation rate is 80 percent.)
Some of Delaware’s charters have been extremely successful. Last year, Charter School of Wilmington was ranked as the No. 5 STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) high school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Since 2000, the school has had the highest average SAT scores in Delaware, and is a top-scoring high school on the state’s math, reading, writing, science and social studies standardized tests.
Newark Charter School is another big achiever. In 2010, Newark Charter was named a Blue Ribbon School—the highest national recognition for schools—by the U.S. Department of Education. A year later, the school ranked No. 2 on the Global Report Card’s list of top-performing schools in reading.
But opponents say there’s a reason why some of the state’s charter schools perform well and others don’t. It comes down to demographics.
At Newark Charter, for example, only 13.5 percent of students during the 2012-13 school year were identified as low income. In comparison, 36 percent of students at Downes Elementary School—the nearest district elementary school—were low income.
“The larger problem is they draw very heavily from the area near them, which is more affluent,” Buckley says. “They are certainly getting fewer low-income kids.”
Buckley says one of the reasons that she decided not to send her children to Newark Charter is because the student body isn’t reflective of the surrounding community. She believes that the demographics at district schools are negatively impacted when more affluent students choose charter schools.
There are currently more than 2,000 students on a waiting list to attend Newark Charter. Because of the demand, the school uses a lottery system to choose new students every year. The lottery gives preference to siblings of current students, children of staff members and students who live within a five-mile radius of the school.
State Rep. John Kowalko says the five-mile radius leads to “de-facto segregation,” because it prevents Wilmington students—many of whom are minority and low-income—from attending Newark Charter.
But Meece says Newark Charter is following state law, which supports the concept of students attending neighborhood schools.
“Traditional public schools in Delaware give geographical preference to people living close to schools; it’s called a feeder pattern,” he says. “That’s what’s going on at traditional public schools, so how is it wrong for charter schools to do the same thing?”
He adds that the lottery system makes it impossible for charters to cherry pick the best and brightest students.
“When you use a lottery, you have no control over who is picked in the lottery,” he says. “It is what it is.”
Kowalko unsuccessfully tried to eliminate the five-mile radius provision from the state’s charter school law during the latest General Assembly session. House Bill 165, a charter school reform bill, was approved by Gov. Jack Markell in June. It updates the original law from 1995 to
enhance accountability and increase financial support for charter schools.
The most controversial element of H.B. 165 is the so-called “performance fund,” which sets aside up to $5 million annually for major charter school capital projects, such as building additions or new construction. The fund will be distributed through a grant process to high-performing charter schools.
Kowalko staunchly opposed the measure, calling it a “slush fund,” and plans to ask his fellow legislators to revisit H.B. 165 during next year’s session.
“We are denying our responsibility to adequately fund traditional public schools, while at the same time creating a pool of money for charter schools with little restriction on what they can spend it on,” he says.
As the debate continues, several existing charter schools are growing and new ones are preparing to open.
Sussex Academy, the only charter school in Sussex County, moved to a new building in Georgetown and began offering a high school curriculum in September 2013.
Newark Charter increased its elementary-level enrollment by 260 students this year, and opened a new high school at the former Lear building off Elkton Road.
The Delaware Board of Education has approved the addition of new grades at Kuumba Academy, MOT Charter School and the Academy of Dover.
Renovations are now underway in Wilmington to convert an 11-story office building on North French Street into the Community Education Building. Starting with the 2014-15 school year, the CEB will be home to Kuumba Academy, La Academia Antonia Alonso and two other charter schools.
“This initiative is all about creating a great environment for high-performing charter schools interested in transforming the educational journey of city students and closing the urban achievement gap,” says Riccardo Stoeckicht, CEB president.
At least six new charter schools are in the planning stages, including Delaware Design-Lab, Delaware MET, La Academia Antonia Alonso and First State Montessori Academy, all in Wilmington, and First State Military Academy and Early College High School, in Dover.
“I have been around the charter school movement since the beginning, [and] the environment has never been more caustic,” Emmett says. “I think it’s because charters are growing very fast. I wish we could live in an environment where we were not viewed as the enemy. The bottom line is we are all accountable for providing good places for students. If we weren’t doing a good job for our parents, we wouldn’t be here, and I would’ve been out of business a long time ago.”