When Delaware first got involved in the business of providing public education for children there was a clear understanding, set forth in the Article X of the state constitution that:
"The General Assembly shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and efficient system of free public schools, and may require by law that every child, not physically or mentally disabled, shall attend the public school, unless educated by other means."
"Establishment and maintenance" is all Delaware is expected to do for public education, other than collecting taxes to pay for the system. Instead this system has morphed into the government actually running schools and establishing a state Department of Education, a large bureaucracy of regulators, of whom few have teaching experience, to decide what is best for your child and spends money however they want.
Years of big federal and state education system program redos1 have not improved education but the bureaucracy has expanded and education spending levels have gone up. The industrial model of education spends a disproportionate amount of taxpayer dollars on administrative expenses and not on classroom expenses.
An underperforming public K-12 system contributes to a lack of economic and social progress, along with the creation of adults who are ill-prepared to become productive members of society. Families and communities across the state are paying a high price for little to no educational progress, reflected in social and economic statistics. Delaware’s violent crime index is 4.9 per-thousand residents, compared to the national median of 3.8. Wilmington is ranked as the third most violent city of its size in the country.2 Dover's violent crime rate 7.5 per-thousand residents compared to the national median of 3.8. Dover also has high property crime rates; Dover's rate is 59.7 per-thousand compared to the national median of 27.3.3 The statewide property crime rate is 30.7 per-thousand.
Other statistics are equally disturbing: the teen pregnancy rate is the eighth highest4 in the country and the statewide unemployment rate has declined from eighth best six years ago to 30th in the country.5
Not all public school districts are equal; families who can afford to remove their children from poorly performing school districts like Colonial or Seaford and send them to a different school do so, while families at the lower end of the income spectrum don't have any alternatives other than the local public school and maybe a charter school if they can get in (and the state doesn't order the charters to close). Research by Dr. Bart Danielsen shows families with resources move to good schools while accepting longer work commutes. Dr. Danielsen's research shows a large number of families have moved across the Pennsylvania border but continue to work in Delaware.6
The scarcity of quality public schools in Delaware has resulted in severe social problems in cities like Wilmington, and the result of having too many children unable to become productive members of society has meant fewer employment opportunities and fewer taxpayers.
To be fair to the system there are outside problems which also hamper a child's education progress. The lack of a father figure in many homes, the lack of involvement from too many parents in their child's education,7 fewer well-paying job opportunities to properly support families, communities full of diverse populations who are unable to bridge their differences, and scholastic problems like mega campuses and safety concerns in school all contribute to the education problems. As the years go on without addressing these problems they build up in communities vulnerable to poverty and the cycle repeats itself.
Yet those running our education system continue to act like they're doing a great job and do not adress problems in the education system seriously. Education reform plans allow public school districts more flexibility in dealing with their challenges, but they must all work with, and receive approval from, a central authority. Money is disbursed with little understanding of the cost/benefits of any particular spending decision and imposing administrative requirements.
Delaware’s historical experience with public education programs has not been one of transformation. Education programs operate within the confines of an underperforming, outdated hierarchical system that cannot easily report efficacy of policies; resource allocation has stymied progress and fostered general distrust. The multiple iterations of education programs have been unproductive while distracting local leadership and teachers.
Experiences in other states have shown school choice and parent funding programs, such as Education Savings Accounts and Scholarship Tax Credits, work. With these programs it's parents who are empowered to make decisions for their children, not unelected regulators or politicians looking for votes. School choice programs allow parents to work directly with school teachers and staff rather than depending on the judgment of program administrators. Researchers such as Thomas Stewart and Patrick Wolfe find parents with choice “accepted that it was their responsibility to ensure that the school they selected was of high quality and a good fit for their child’s needs.”
A Friedman Foundation survey shows Delaware parents want to be empowered with their children's education.8 Redirecting education decisions will not only empower parents but will enable our elected and unelected officials to do what the Delaware Constitution instructs them to do, which is to "establish and maintain" a system of public education. Of course this will require the federal government to abandon its efforts to run one-size-fits-all education programs, but that should not prevent Delaware from standing up for its students.
Evidence shows school choice programs do work when properly designed, instituted, and regulated. It's time for Delaware to join the other states that have successfully run their own school choice programs, for the benefit of all students.
Senior Policy Advisor
Caesar Rodney Institute
1 Race to the Top (RTTT) is the latest in a series of education programs. It deals with many of the same issues and goals as its predecessor No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The roots of both of these programs are in the first education summit convened in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush. A year later the National Education Goals Panel was established that became President Clinton’s Goals 2000 program and then President George W. Bush’s NCLB and now President Barack Obama’s RTTT.