Keeping Kids in School

Advocating for Changes in Admissions & Discipline Practices

A top priority for the ACLU here in Delaware is a comprehensive approach to protecting students’ rights and ensuring equal access to a quality education. While Delaware’s education scene faces many challenges that warrant attention and change, we have begun to tackle two of the most significant issues: unreasonable school discipline practices and discriminatory school admissions practices. Both serve to push out or keep out students with disabilities, students from low-income families and students of color.

Delaware’s Schools are Resegregated

In December of 2014, ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), charging that implementation of Delaware’s charter law fostered Racially Identifiable Public Schools by Districtdiscriminatory admissions practices and caused resegregation among students. Using the Delaware Department of Education’s own data, we determined that two-thirds of Delaware’s charter schools are racially identifiable. OCR has discussed the complaint with us and should now be conducting its investigation.

The OCR complaint calls for several corrective actions, such as

  • the use of a random opt-out lottery for charter school admissions;
  • capping class size in traditional public schools at the same level as charter schools and ensuring that total funding for traditional public schools is equal to that of charter schools; and
  • additional funding for schools with a disproportionately high number of low-income students, students of color, and students with special needs.

The one currently gaining traction is our request for a moratorium on granting any new charters until a desegregation plan has been created and implemented. Wilmington City Council adopted a resolution asking the state for such a moratorium within the City, and a bill requesting the same has been introduced in the legislature.

Standing Up for Special Needs Students

Another action we have taken to stand up for the rights of disadvantaged children involves Gateway Lab School—a charter elementary and middle school that specializes in serving students with special education needs arising from learning disabilities, attention disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder and behavior disorders. Gateway’s charter was up for renewal in December. The Charter School Accountability Committee, citing low standardized test scores, recommended the charter not be renewed and the school closed at the end of the school year.

The committee disregarded the new school administration’s work with the University of Delaware’s Delaware Academy of School Leadership (DASL) to overhaul the school’s curriculum, teacher training and overall approach. We stepped in and sent a letter to Secretary of Education Mark Murphy, explaining that the committee had been required by law to consider the changes the school made, and was continuing to make, after the standardized test results were reported. We urged him and the State Board of Education to reject the committee’s recommendation. They did.

A Statewide Effort to Keep Kids Out of the Juvenile Justice System

Our other top priority is to keep students in the classroom and out of the juvenile justice system. For over a year, the ACLU-led Coalition for Fairness and Equity in Schools has advocated for statewide changes to school discipline practices to eliminate suspensions for low-level offenses and reduce disparity while adopting a restorative approach—strategies that promote conflict resolution and cultivate relationships. The coalition is making progress; the Department of Education has agreed to provide greater transparency and will, by August of 2015, break out district- and school-level discipline data by grade level, offense, race, income level and special education classification.

The coalition has organized meetings across the state, asking members of the public and a full array of community DSC_2472stakeholders to collaborate on how to effectively implement the coalition’s recommendations. The work has gained momentum downstate as well, thanks in part to a partnership with First State Community Action Agency, which is hosting meetings for the coalition at their Georgetown headquarters. Discussion at a recent meeting there raised the need to increase hiring and retention of minority teachers and administrators in Sussex County school districts as a way to promote equity in the classroom.

Education has long been a focus of the ACLU of Delaware, all the way back to the late Gerry Kandler’s tenure as our president in the early 1970s, when he led the fight to secure free appropriate education for all special needs children. While that focus continues to evolve to address the ever-growing list of disparities faced by Delaware’s neediest students, we remain committed to ensuring that every child has equal access to the best education possible.

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