Last week, I called for conviction from Carney’s administration. Today, Governor Carney acted upon his convictions and vetoed legislation (HS 1 for HB 85) that removed Delaware public charter schools’ ability to give preference to families within a five-mile radius. This will no doubt elevate the fierce debate around this legislation to a new level and some will applaud Governor Carney for looking out for the most underserved students. But there is a difference between policy decisions that will make great headlines and reforms that will make great headway for students who urgently need excellent schools. Unfortunately, neither HS 1 for HB 85 nor Carney’s veto get us closer to this end.

Here is a quick and dirty recap of how we got here…not shockingly, we got here through compromise.

Representative Kim Williams has several gripes with public charters and magnet schools. She thinks it is unfair that several of Delaware’s highest-performing, non-traditional public schools have “enrollment preferences” she believes are used to selectively enroll students. Note: residential choices by families with more resources also create “enrollment preferences” in traditional public schools (but I digress).

I’d submit that Rep. Williams feels that these preferences are used to exclude low-income and minority kids from schools like Newark Charter School. Note: schools like Eastside Charter School and First State Montessori also use a 5-mile radius to ensure they are serving kids from the surrounding neighborhood in the City of Wilmington.   

Rep. Williams chaired a task force designed to investigate these enrollment preferences and sponsored legislation (House Bill 85) primarily to eliminate Newark Charter School’s 5-mile radius enrollment preference. Compromises were made as Rep. Williams worked to pass this legislation along with co-sponsor Senator David Sokola. The final bill eliminated the 5-mile radius preference but replaced it with a preference “for students located in the portion of the regular school district that is geographically contiguous with the location of the charter school.

Translation: This opens a high-performing school like Newark Charter School to more kids in the Newark-area portion of the Christina School District (one of four non-contiguous districts in the country) but not the Wilmington-area portion.

This made for terrible policy and even worse optics. It understandably angered many in the Wilmington community (some threatened legal action). Even some Wilmington-area leaders who are not too fond of public charters could not tolerate seeing policy move forward that did not include giving Wilmington kids access to a top charter school. In fact, all three senators representing the city unsuccessfully attempted to amend the legislation in the Senate.

Yet, Carney’s administration and all the parties involved allowed it to move through the legislative process as if a veto was not inevitable.

The problem is that this policy and Carney’s veto are tantamount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Even if the legislation opened access to Wilmington-area students, few kids from the city would be impacted given Newark Charter’s current waiting list of more than 3000 kids for around 200 spots each year. As it stands, few kids from Wilmington even apply to Newark Charter. Increasing access to one school 15 miles away from the city is no strategy for improving outcomes for Wilmington’s 11,500 kids.

This was about fairness and process. And it featured some of the type of hypocrisy I have called a “serious threat to American public education.

This was not about creating the conditions for schools that are getting results to expand and serve more kids. This was never about creating bold reforms that will ensure kids are not trapped in low-performing schools with no options.

The end result of this is predictable and unfortunate. Months of effort and talk have generated great headlines and supplied fodder for those enticed by the polemics of education policy. But for the kids who need us to make headway, this all means nothing.

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