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Two secret meetings

November 28, 2012 7 comments

Two different groups of movers and shakers have been meeting in secret for months now to make major changes in Delaware’s public education landscape. The lever they will pull to move and shake the landscape will be charter schools. This spring we will likely get our first chance for public comment, but by then it will be too late to reverse the changes or even to make more than trivial revisions.

If charter schools are public schools, why is all the planning and decision-making private?

1. Secret meeting number one: the “donated” Bank Of America building
The Longwood Foundation has engaged a national organization CEE-Trust to select the charter schools it will accept as tenants into the Community Education Building (CEB). That’s the Wilmington building that Bank of America donated to the schools Longwood Foundation in February. Applications were due August 31, and final decisions are to be made “mid-October.” These selection meetings are being held in secret. All they have told us is that for Fall 2013 they will be selecting two existing charter schools, and more in 2014.

Here’s what CEB has to say about the selection process:

Who designed the selection process?
The selection process was designed by national experts from the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust) and Bellwether Education Partners. CEE-Trust is a national network of 23 city-based education reform organizations and foundations. Bellwether is a national education strategy-consulting firm.

Who is leading the selection process?
The selection process is being led by a national panel of charter school experts convened by CEE-Trust. Their bios can also be found under the School Selection and Performance Review Committee tab on the Application page.  

Here are the bios (click here) of the people deciding which schools will be accepted into the new Community Education Building. Do you know any of these people? Do they live in Delaware? Did you vote for any of them?

Let’s be clear about the magnitude of CEB. The plan is to provide 2000-2200 student seats with four or more charter schools in the building. This is a number that will overturn the capacity planning chessboard all over New Castle County. Existing schools will likely shrink, be repurposed, and will close. What representative body agreed to this?

After CEB selects its tenants, they will still have to go through the normal charter school application process (or modification, in the case of existing charters) with the State Board of Education. That is the first formal opportunity for public input. But by the time the application is presented, the charter law virtually guarantees it will be approved as long as the application follows the rules. Without ever asking if Wilmington even wants a 2200-seat school with a so-far unknown grade levels, and with admission policies to-be-determined.

Despite the big red bow, without local control this building is not for you, your children, or your school system.

2. Secret meeting number two: the Governor’s working group on charter schools
The other secret meeting is the governor’s working group on charters, which we only know about through the intrepid reporting of Larry Nagengast of wdde.org. This group is clearly a public body, but does not seem to have a presence on the Delaware Public Meetings Calendar or on the state web site at all.

The governor’s working group is composed of people you’ve heard of or might have voted for, selected by the governor’s office. It does look like there was some intent to include charter stakeholders as well as traditional public school stakeholders. Unfortunately there is no representation from Red Clay and Christina, whose schools are likely to be highly impacted by the 2200 new seats. And there is only one parent representative (via the Delaware PTA), which leaves parent viewpoints underrepresented, especially city parents.

The group is expected to meet August through December, according to a spokesman quoted by Nagengast. The goal of the group is “It will try to make recommendations to strengthen the framework for assessing new charter school applications, the support the state provides to charter schools and the process for reauthorizing school charters.”

These goals will require changes to the charter law (“charter reform,”) which means different things to different people. For charter advocates, charter reform means obtaining capital funding from the state, and exemption from some unstated new regulations.

But for charter skeptics, reform requires a number of changes, including impact reviews for existing traditional public schools, demographic guidelines to address resegregation, an expectation that successes will be replicable, some sort of local control, a renewal of neighborhood schools, and a general effort to prevent the creation of semi-private enclave schools with public funds.

And northern Delaware is in fact on the cusp of a dramatic charter expansion not approved by any voters. In my opinion, the worst outcome would be to grant capital funding in exchange for insufficient reforms. Geven the Delaware Way, that seems an extremely likely outcome. And when a Governor’s panel puts out a recommendation, the likelihood is the report will become the framework for legislation, possibly even this year.

So the question is, will the impending charter expansion take place under the current charter law, or under the “reformed” charter law? Will the “reforms” be designed to grease the skids for the charter expansion, or will they provide more thoughtful controls for improved outcomes across the entire public school system? Nobody knows right now, because the hand-picked group isn’t talking.

The underlying risk is that a greatly expanded charter presence would harm traditional public schools, at worst turning them into second-class dumping grounds and forcing Districts to close or repurpose schools. Suburban parents who are used to tuning out Wilmington issues should take note: the new mega-charters will have an impact on suburban schools.

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