The most pressing economic development issue facing Delaware today is the poor quality of our public schools. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress, Delaware’s eighth-grade math and reading results rank 31st in the nation.
One third were ranked below proficient. Less than 30 percent of high school graduates are college-ready. Included in this statistic are minority students who scored in the 10 percent range and Hispanic students who scored in the 20 percent range. Is it any wonder that so many employers and households cite Delaware’s public schools as a major reason to locate elsewhere?
Even more discouraging is that Delaware public schools have shown no improvement over the last ten years. This is despite $22 billion in local, state and federal spending. In fact, spending per student in Delaware is nearly $23,000 a year, 15 percent higher than the average in other states, and twelfth most generous in the country.
Why have the results been so poor? An education monopoly exists in Delaware public schools that is controlled by the iron triangle of the Delaware State Education Association (a union), the Delaware State General Assembly and the education bureaucracy. It is in their interest to focus on spending for inputs, such as salaries, personnel and facilities, while reducing accountability for results. Delaware now ranks as third highest in non-teacher staff per student. Less than 50 percent of every dollar spent gets to the classroom. Attempts to raise performance by imposing standards, such as Common Core and numerous state and federal mandates, have failed.
This failure has been costly to Delaware’s economy. The exodus of families from New Castle County to Chester County has caused a total net loss of adjusted gross income of $2.8 billion (Internal Revenue Service). A net of $3 billion of income earned from jobs in New Castle County goes primarily to Chester County each year (Bureau of Economic Analysis). Inevitably this population movement is followed by businesses, employers and jobs.
Most tragic are the consequences for low-income children whose parents do not have the resources to move to Pennsylvania nor to pay for private school. Their choices are to homeschool or hope to get in a charter school. But the lines for charter schools are long. They are desperate for an alternative.
Other states have taken action where Delaware has not. There are 75 public/private school choice programs in the U.S. in 26 states, but none in Delaware. Other states have voucher or education tax credits or savings accounts. A survey of Delaware voters by the Friedman Foundation found that 72 percent favor more charter schools and 70 percent favor vouchers, results that hold for urban, suburban and rural areas.
Tax credits or vouchers give low-income families a choice of schools for their children. The tuition tax credit is an option for Delaware since the Blaine Amendment, a relic of 1890s anti-Catholic bigotry, blocks public funds from sectarian schools in the state constitution. No such prohibition applies to tax credits. Tax credits or vouchers could be phased in initially for low-income families and families in the lowest performing schools.
Faced with competition, public schools often improve. But if they do not, they should be allowed to fail and be replaced with charter or private schools. The education of children in Delaware schools is too important to wait any longer. The demand of voters for change is the only chance to break the Delaware education iron triangle of special interests. Support candidates who are willing to give Delaware’s families educational choice and a good education now.
Stacie Beck and Eleanor Craig are associate professors of Economics at the University of Delaware.[“Source-delawareonline”]