The Charter School Alternative — Delaware

Everything parents need to know about charter schools in Delaware

When Genesis Lyons was ready to start Kindergarten, her mother Tahira wasn’t sure the local public school was the best fit. Even as a toddler, Tahira reports, Genesis showed an artsy side and seemed to “think outside the box.” The New Castle mom considered private school but was wary of the tuition expense. So she researched and networked, talking with neighbors and other moms in line at the grocery store, to learn as much as she could about her choices. 

She discovered that Wilmington’s Kuumba Academy, an integrated arts charter school, might offer Genesis more engaged teaching than she’d find at a traditional public school. Now 10 and a rising 6th grader, Genesis has thrived at Kuumba, as has her 8-year-old brother Malachi, a 4th grader next month. Tahira is confident she made the right decision.

“I like the rigor of the charter school,” Tahira says. “They do a lot of testing to [determine how] to meet the children’s individual needs. There’s a smaller classroom setting to give a little extra attention, and it’s almost like a family where the staff knows all the children. It’s about relationship-building, and I felt that 
right away.”

What is a charter school?

While charter schools get lots of buzz these days, they aren’t new. In fact, Delaware charter schools have been around since 1995, when there were just two; 20 years later, 26 charter schools serve about 10 percent of all Delaware public school children. (One closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year and seven more are expected by 2017). 

Charter schools are public schools funded with federal, state and local tax dollars but independently run by a Governing Board — parents, educators and other community members who must prove to the state that they can successfully educate local students. The board must come up with a mission and present its case to an authorizing body (the state of Delaware, in most cases), which will decide whether or not the school can open. Delaware charter schools are given five years to demonstrate success through student testing; if they fall short, schools can lose their charter. 

Financially, charter schools receive a per-pupil allotment, including funds from their local school district, for operating costs — but not for buildings, equipment or start-up. That outlay may come from private donors, foundations, loans and grants. Although they receive less government funding than public schools, charter schools have greater flexibility in deciding how to use their funds.

Indeed, the biggest difference between charters and other public schools is that “We have autonomy and flexibility,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the nonprofit Delaware Charter Schools Network. “That is the charter bargain — the ability to do things without having as many burdens on us.” 

These “burdens” refer to the way teaching is done, not the bulk of the curriculum content, which must fulfill the state’s Common Core standards (although many charter schools add a particular focus to traditional subjects, such as the Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security, which trains its students in emergency response). Charter school students must demonstrate their knowledge on state testing, just like public school students. 

Additionally, “We are exempt from most regulations and codes that the rest of the public schools are held to,” Massett says. For one: Charter schools are not required to have a collective bargaining agreement with teachers, whereas public schools must have union agreements, so it’s easier to replace staff members who are not performing well.  

The caveat, according to Massett, is the higher level of accountability that comes with the easing of burdens. “If we do not have great student outcomes, we agree to have consequences,” she says. Case in point: this year’s charter school closure (New Castle’s Reach Academy for Girls).

Why choose a charter school?

Families like the Lyons have their own reasons for selecting a charter school, but according to Massett, the main attraction is choice. “Every child learns differently, so parents look for the best fit,” she says. 
Families apply to charter schools using Delaware’s common School Choice application, which must be turned in by the second Wednesday in January. If a school is oversubscribed, a lottery system is used. In instances where there are fewer applicants than available slots and a lottery isn’t necessary, applications can be taken after the January deadline. The Delaware Charter Schools Network posts real-time updates of which schools still have availability.

While the Lyons family is comfortable with their choice, Tahira wishes charter schools received more funding to be able to provide even more resources, pay teachers more and hire additional staff. She says that parents pick up the slack, volunteering to help with non-educational tasks such as making copies or taking a class to the library.  

Despite the pressure to prove their effectiveness and potentially lower pay, good teachers are attracted to charter schools for the reduced management and opportunities for classroom innovation, says Massett. If they see something the kids right in front of them need, they can seek permission to incorporate it into the curriculum immediately. Because charter schools are private entities, decision-
making can happen much more quickly, giving teachers the nimbleness to custom-create effective lesson plans almost on the spot. 

“In public school, there are so many levels of people you are required to convince to make changes to do great things for your kids that it’s almost impossible” to react in real time, Massett says. 

Opponents say that charter schools hurt the overall public school system, diluting funding and skimming away top students. Massett counters that charter schools add to the system, not detract, because giving families a choice is a positive thing. “Charter schools offer healthy competition,” she says. 

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Education Features