Battle brews over proposed charter school moratorium

What seemed like an unlikely battle over charter schools last month suddenly turned into a blistering war of words, with the next skirmish likely to come Wednesday afternoon in Dover, when the Education Committee of the House will meet in the Legislative Hall.

The first push came in February, when the state Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee began reviewing Freire Charter School’s request to add a Newark-area school to the high school it already operates in Wilmington after the school board of Christina School District, which serves the greater Newark area, included in legislative priorities, it approved in January a request for a moratorium on state approvals of new charter schools.

At the time, State Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman (D-Wilmington), who serves as vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the legislative appetite for another charter school debate seemed “pretty weak”.

That changed last week.

On March 16, five lawmakers introduced HB 352, which would allow state education officials to deny an application to open or expand a charter school based on its impact on other schools in the area where it would be located – one of the concerns mentioned by Christina’s board.

The next day, HB 353 was introduced. The bill would create an advisory group to review possible reforms to the charter school approval and amendment process, which has seen only minor changes since the charter law was enacted in 1995. The bill also calls for a moratorium, until the end of 2023, on charter approvals and amendments – but only in New Castle County.

Also on March 17, Freire notified state education officials that she was withdrawing her application for approval of her Newark-area school project. In the letter, Nate Durant, co-principal of Freire Wilmington and proposed principal of the new school, cited an “us” versus “them” sentiment within the education community.

Durant did not elaborate and declined a request for an interview, so it remains unclear whether Freire’s decision was related to the introduction of the legislation or simply a coincidence.

Keeley Powell, president of the Christina Board of Education, said she was surprised to learn that Freire had withdrawn her candidacy. Nor did she expect the bills introduced last week. “I was not consulted [by any legislators],” she said. “It really evolved quickly.”

The war of words

More details could emerge Wednesday afternoon, when HB 353 is one of four bills on the agenda of the House Education Committee meeting.

However, Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, said in an interview Tuesday that “lawmakers did it on purpose” to block Freire.

“Our charter officers and educators need to focus on advancing our students, instead they need to spend their time fighting off attacks from those who hate our schools just because we are different.”

Kendall Massett, director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network. director

The interview followed statements made by Massett in an email to Delaware state media on Sunday evening.

“Legislators who have benefited from school choice with respect to their own education and/or the education of their children have chosen to introduce legislation that would eliminate those choices for other families,” she said. writing. That comment referred to State Representative Madinah Wilson-Anton, (D-Bear) a graduate of Wilmington Charter School, and Lockman, whose daughter graduated from the same school in 2021.

Wilson-Anton and Lockman did not respond to requests for comment.

Later in the email, Massett wrote, “Our charter leaders and educators must focus on advancing our students, instead they must spend their time fighting the attacks of those who hate our schools simply because we are different.” Asked Tuesday to identify those who hate charter schools, she spoke broadly about Christina School District officials and supporters and three Democratic lawmakers — Reps. Kim Williams (D-Stanton), chairman of the House Education Committee; and John Kowalko (D-Newark) and Paul Baumbach (D-Newark).

“They’re just not good people,” Massett said Tuesday.

“I don’t hate charter schools,” Williams replied, adding “it’s hard to fight the lies.”

Williams pointed out that she has long supported the state’s choice system, which creates a modified open enrollment system for traditional and charter schools, and cited her record, both as a legislator and as a as a member of the Red Clay Board of Education. , improve programs for students with special needs, and streamline application and selection procedures for school choice. “I’ve worked all my life to make things fairer for all children,” she said.

“Nobody is looking to shut down charter schools. “We are looking to improve the system for all families.”

State Representative Kim Williams, Chairman of the House Education Committee

Massett, however, said she was alarmed by “the amount of vitriol spewed out at charter schools” recently, saying it was “the most hateful language I have ever seen.” Members of the House Education Committee called charter schools “racist,” she said.

What HB 353 could do

With Freire’s demand for a second school out of the picture, the issues that HB 353 could solve, if it becomes law, center on the elusive goal of achieving educational equity for all. students. The bill’s synopsis expresses the hope that any resulting changes will “improve equity and better integrate charter schools into the broader public school system…in New Castle County.”

Wednesday afternoon’s hearing will provide the first public discussion of the bill’s features.

While Williams notes that the bill, if passed, would create an “advisory group” to review charter school procedures, Massett worries that “there are people in the room who want to tear down schools at charter”. Charters are enrolling 17,201 students this year, or about 15% of the state’s total public school population.

The advisory group would have 14 members – two legislators, six New Castle County school district superintendents, two charter school principals, two members of the State Board of Education, Education Secretary Mark Holodick and a Charter member. State School Office. He would have until December 1 to submit his final report.

Items the group should address would include:

  • Whether the criteria used to evaluate new charter schools and modifications should include evaluation of current educational opportunities in the area where the school would be located, and the impact of the charter on other schools or programs.
  • How to ensure that families with low incomes, learning English, or facing transportation barriers can access the full range of educational opportunities in New Castle County.
  • Whether there should be changes in the entities authorized to authorize new charters. (Currently, the Department of Education and school districts have this authority, but Red Clay is the only district that has authorized charters within its boundaries.)
  • Recommendations for improving licensing and amendment processes to improve equity and better integrate charters and traditional public schools.

While some of the goals set out in the bill — like providing equitable access for all students to all schools and better integrating charters and traditional schools — are concepts the Charter School Network has traditionally supported, Massett says that the wording used “sounds a lot like the boilerplate used by anti-charter groups across the country. It asserts that the purpose of the bill is ‘to ensure that there are no more choices’.”
Powell, the chairman of Christina’s board, sees things differently. She notes that enrollment plans indicate declining public school enrollment in New Castle County over the next 10 to 15 years. She says it’s important to determine the need for additional school buildings and fears that opening more schools with fewer students will lead to diminished resources that would force schools to scale back their programming.

“Nobody is looking to shut down charter schools,” Williams says. “We are looking to improve the system for all families.

Unintended consequences

While those familiar with HB 353 say it focused on the possible impact of the proposed Freire Newark School on the Christina District, the current wording of the bill, referring to both charter applications and changes to existing charters, could have an impact on three other schools. in New Castle County.

Eastside Charter, an elementary and middle school in northeast Wilmington, is requesting two changes — to begin a gradual increase in enrollment from 460 to 580 students starting in fall 2023 and to move classes for some of its students to the Teen Warehouse, just over a mile away, while a new STEM Hub building is under construction in the upcoming school year.

Academia Antonia Alonso, a bilingual elementary school now housed in a building owned by Odyssey Charter School outside Wilmington, is seeking permission to move to a new location near Newark this fall because its lease from Odyssey expires. To help fund the move to the new building, Academia is seeking permission to increase enrollment by phasing in grades six through eight over the next three years.

Odyssey, which has a K-12 program serving more than 2,000 students, also has a pending change request. He is asking permission to enroll about 300 additional students, using the classroom space freed up by the Academia Antonia Alonso.

Final decisions on these applications would normally be made at the April meeting of the State Board of Education. It’s unclear what might happen with these requests if HB 353 passes as is, as it retroactively sets a March 1 effective date for the proposed moratorium.

State Rep. Kim Williams says she expects the bill to go through some revisions before it makes it to the House for a vote.

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