Charter school legislation removes Delaware geographic boundaries

Bay to Bay News

Nearly five years after similar legislation was vetoed, a bill that would bring an end to a discriminatory admissions practice for charter schools passed in the House of Representatives last week.

House Bill 238, sponsored by Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, would remove the ability for charter schools to give preference to students who live within five miles of the school when applying for admissions.

A similar bill passed in both the House and the Senate in 2017, but Gov. John Carney decided to veto the bill, stating that the legislation would unfairly exclude some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

House Substitute 1 to HB 85, sponsored by Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, in the 149th General Assembly would have removed the preference of students within a five-mile radius of charter schools, although it allowed a new preference for students who lived within the school district that is “geographically contiguous” with the charter school.

This piece of language would have prevented students who live in the Christina School District portion of the city of Wilmington from attending Newark Charter School due to the geographical restrictions.

Rep. Kowalko applauded Gov. Carney’s reasoning for vetoing HS 1 for HB 85 in 2017 and acknowledged the Newark Charter School’s use of the preference in his 25th District. After HS 1 for HB 85 was vetoed, Rep. Kowalko said his intention was to bring forth a piece of legislation to remove the geographic preference for charter schools’ admissions.

He said his support of these measures have garnered some to deem him as “anti-charter,” but Rep. Kowalko said that isn’t the case.

“I’m pro-public education. There are some parents who believe that what’s best for their child should be the standard, and I agree with that. But if what’s best for your child comes at the expense of another child, then we diverge on the paths of what we believe.” Rep. Kowalko said.

The intention of the new bill is to address what Rep. Kowalko called a “discriminatory practice.” He said the longstanding issue has become particularly relevant as high school students in the Christina School District portion of the city of Wilmington have been bused to the district’s three high schools: Christiana, Glasgow and Newark High School. Due to their location, Wilmington’s high school students are unable to apply for admission to Newark Charter School under current law.

Rep. Kowalko said this admissions preference is especially discriminatory to those in the low-income community. He said it’s particularly important to help provide this access to students in low-income households because their surroundings and circumstances already interfere with their education.

“You can see that the crux of this particular problem, and the difficulty with public education being successful for everybody is going to be in the low-income community,” Rep. Kowalko said.

“We, as a state, have never attempted to really address the problems of low-income communities. As a nation, we’re relieving poverty with minimum-wage increases, livable-wage increases, all of these things go hand in hand. But it especially jumps out at you in the public education field.”

Charter schools are public schools and are funded through taxpayer money at the same rates as regular public schools, which Rep. Kowalko said should require the schools to have the same parameters of admission and acceptance as other schools.

The ability for charter schools to give priority to students within five miles of the school has resulted in income and racial disparities in the student bodies of these institutions. In an email to the Delaware State News, Rep. Kowalko provided a variety of statistics which showed these disparities in Delaware high schools.

For the three Christina School District high schools, the overall percentage of White students was 27.6%. For the state’s charter schools, 59% of Newark Charter students are White, 77.8% of Delaware Military Academy students are White, 70% of First State Montessori Academy students are White and 50.8% of Wilmington Charter School students are White. The overall percentage of White students in Delaware high schools is 41%.

The statistics also showed discrepancies for the percentage of low-income students. For the three Christina School District high schools, 31.9% of students come from low-income families. The statistics showed that the percentage of low-income families at Newark Charter is 6.1%, 6.05% for DMA, 8.8% for First State Montessori Academy, and 4% for the Wilmington Charter School. The statewide percentage of students from low-income households is 24%.

The lone exception for these statistics was Las Américas ASPIRA Academy in Newark, where 24% of the student body come from low-income households. The percentage of White students at ASPIRA was 12% while 70% of the school’s student body is Hispanic.

“What has happened is that using public money and creating schools that are charter schools has resulted in an almost uncommon lack of diversity at these schools,” Rep. Kowalko said.

“When you use a five-mile radius exclusion, it promotes an ethnic, economic and race-based exclusion from a public school. It results in a de facto segregation and quite frankly impedes tax-paying families from access to institutions that they pay taxes for.”

Rep. Kowalko, who intends on retiring at the end of his current term in office, said expanding educational opportunities has always been one of his top priorities during his career, representing the 25th District. He said passing HB 238 would be the finishing touches on his quest to expand access to public education in the state.

“The fact is that this bill itself is a corrective course that has to be taken. If we can do this bill, then I think it’s a major, major, constitutional deprivation that we’re taking to restore people’s rights.” Rep. Kowalko said.

HB 238 has been assigned to the Senate Executive committee where it awaits consideration.

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