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From the Publisher: Saving Our Failing City Schools

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It’s an old story. Kids in affluent public schools thrive while those in depressed city schools fail to meet standards. Such was the case in the mid-1970s, when the Superior Court ruled that a lack of resources in Wilmington city schools, coupled with racial imbalance in schools throughout New Castle County, created a segregated system that resulted in an inferior education for a large number of minority kids. Today, kids in public charter schools like Kuumba Academy and Charter School of Wilmington thrive, yet those in depressed city schools fail to meet standards.

So we’re right back where we started: The city’s six elementary schools are the worst in the state—and we face another segregation lawsuit. The ACLU and Community Legal Aid have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, claiming that the growth of charter schools has contributed to re-segregation of public schools in Delaware. Fair enough. But instead of tearing down thriving charter schools, which could have a deleterious effect across the state, let’s put our focus and resources on fixing problem schools. Wilmington can set the example. I applaud the solution offered by Gov. Jack Markell: Increase pay for principals in troubled city schools, hire new ones, grant them autonomy from district rules, make every teacher re-apply for his or her job, then increase educational resources.

The practice works. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans created a district of almost all independent charter schools. Since then, the number of students from third through eighth grade who have achieved or exceeded standards soared from 35 percent to 63 percent. The city is now on pace to become the only high-poverty urban district in the country to exceed the state’s rate of proficiency. Why? Principals in New Orleans’ independent schools are free from antiquated collective bargaining rules, so they can improve the teaching force through hiring and firing, and pay increases are based on performance rather than seniority. The principals are held accountable. I wonder today who is accountable for our failing schools?

Principals are the main factor in the success of a school, according to a new study by Harvard Kennedy School. And study after study shows that good teachers raise student achievement while bad teachers lower it. And here’s the kicker: A 2011 Stanford study found that replacing the bottom 10 percent of public school teachers with average teachers would boost American student achievement to best in the world. Best in the world. Given Lt. Gov. Matt Denn’s belief that we can find some of the resources to pay good teachers more and what they’re worth—and attract new ones—by reducing an expensive, top-heavy central district administration, every public school parent in the state should demand the change. Otherwise, these city children will not be prepared for the workforce and, therefore, will be condemned to low-wage jobs or unemployment. Yes, students in city schools suffer a disproportionate degree of poverty, violence and other ills, and those factors contribute mightily to low achievement. But if the schools were granted true local control, and there were a real will by our city and state leaders to correct the problems, improvement could be limitless. Our children deserve no less.

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