We are making some headway on increasing educational excellence and equity in Delaware
Sixty years ago this month, Delaware became part of the historic U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954). That case established that separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. On the pages of this paper, and many others nationally, the natural question is, how far have we come?
The Delaware portion of this case, tried by Delaware’s first African-American attorney, Louis L. Redding, was known as Bulah v. Gephart, and it became one of the five to comprise Brown v. Board of Education. The origins of the case stemmed from the fact that African-American families could not send their children to better-resourced white schools.
Many have focused on measuring the success or failure of the court decision based on the current level of integration in our schools. Simply looking at those numbers misses some fundamental issues.
We look at the impact of the case through four lenses: access, integration, excellence and equity.
On the issue of “access,” as suggested above, Mr. Redding’s work has had a significant impact. In the 1950s, African-Americans only had access to “Negro” schools. Today, legally, a child cannot be denied access to any public school based on race. In short, as his grandson, Stefan Lallinger, recently noted, Mr. Redding’s work, “opened the door” for generations of children.
If the “integration” of our schools is one’s measure, Mr. Redding would have concerns. While many of our schools educate children from dozens of nationalities, our city schools, whether public charter, district or vocational, tend to have higher percentages of children of color living in poverty compared to suburban schools.
The intent of integration was noble but we have to acknowledge that the reality of integration has not always reflected this ideal. In many schools where children were forced to integrate there are well-documented cases in which low-income children of color were segregated within school buildings based on disproportionate assignments to special education, tracking to lower-level classes, or differential enforcement of student conduct policies resulting in higher rates of suspension, alternative placements and expulsion.
In short, a more integrated school does not necessarily equate to better educated students.
We believe that the twin goals of “excellence” and “equity” are the more important drivers of success and may in fact lead to greater diversity in our schools. When it comes to educational “excellence”, we aren’t there yet. The performance of low-income children and children of color is improving, but significant achievement gaps remain.
Schools like Kuumba Academy, Howard, Georgetown Middle are all schools that are beating the odds by generating strong academic performance despite high percentages of students living in poverty. Every school has its own story, but Ms. Avery, one of the founders of Kuumba explained that there’s no mystery to their school’s comparative success. It starts by honoring our children’s diversity while preparing them for leadership in a world that is unlike their own. The educational foundation rests on excellence in teaching, inspired learning, and family engagement. We can point to other examples of excellence throughout Delaware, but a child living in poverty here still faces huge educational challenges.
This speaks to “equity,” the last lens by which we’d view the Brown decision, and the place we have the most work to do. Our funding system was created in the 1940s.
The world has changed since then. Back then, about 86 percent of the Delaware population was white, 14 percent were African American and Asian and Latino Delawareans represented less than 0.1 percent. Today, white children are the minority in our public schools. In addition, in just the last seven years, the gap between rich and poor is growing: childhood poverty went from 12 percent in 2007 to more than 20 percent in 2013 (Kids Count).
The state has not only become more diverse, but some facets of our lives, like the changes in technology, could not have even been imagined 70 years ago. Yet, we still have the same funding system based on an antiquated system of “units” that counts children as if they were all exactly the same. We should have a system that reflects the fact that the supports needed to help every child attain excellency should vary.
We need to build a funding system – married with clear accountability for student achievement – that reflects the needs of individual children. We need to break from the rigid formulas that hamstring school leaders from responding to a rapidly changing world. Thirty-six other states already have made this shift to what is known as a “weighted student funding” model. Delaware needs to as well.
Our funding system simply needs to be more fair and flexible.
Mr. Redding opened the door for the next generation in 1954, we, collectively need to be willing to keep pushing through it by continuing to spark courageous conversations.
Raye Jones Avery is the executive director, Christina Cultural Arts Center Inc., and Paul Herdman is the president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware.