The Delaware House last week passed a bill that would prohibit Newark Charter School from giving admission preference to students in the Newark area.
If passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, HB 238 would eliminate the ability of NCS and other charter schools to give preference to students who live within 5 miles of the school. Instead, students from across the state would have an equal chance in the lottery that determines acceptance into the school.
“This bill has one single and simple purpose – to repeal a flaw in the charter school law that allows charter schools to exclude taxpaying families from access to those schools,” said State Rep. John Kowalko, the Newark Democrat who is sponsoring the bill.
Delaware’s charter school law, passed in 1995, allows charter schools to give preference to certain groups, including students who live within a 5-mile radius of the school, students who live in the school district where the school is located, students who have a specific interest in the school’s focus, students who are at risk of academic failure and/or students who are children of the school’s employees.
Newark Charter is one of three charter schools in the state that use the five-mile radius. The other two, East Side Charter School and First State Montessori, are in Wilmington.
Students from anywhere in the state can, and do, apply to attend Newark Charter, but because more students from within the radius apply than the school has room for, other students don’t get a chance to compete for a seat. The school has a waiting list of more than 3,000 students.
Kowalko, a longtime critic of Newark Charter and its enrollment process, has made previous attempts to eliminate the 5-mile radius. A similar bill was vetoed by Gov. John Carney in 2017, but the new bill does not include the specific part that Carney objected to.
Kowalko argued the radius promotes “economic and race-based exclusion” and causes de-facto segregation.
“The job of public schools is to say, ‘Welcome to our house, whether or not you look like us, talk like us, walk like us, or live beside us,’” he said.
According to statistics from the Delaware Department of Education, NCS’s enrollment is 59 percent white, 12 percent Black, 6 percent Latino, 16 percent Asian, and 6 percent multi-racial. That is roughly on par with the demographics of Newark, but less diverse than schools like Newark High, which also draw students from Wilmington and Bear.
“The 5-mile radius is just another tool being used to maintain this system of inequity and division,” State Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, D-Wilmington, said.
However, charter supporters argue the radius allows a school to focus on the community where it is located.
“The radius actually gives us a true community school model, where others are lacking in that,” State Rep. Michael Smith, R-Pike Creek, said.
State Rep. Bryan Shupe, R-Milford, concurred.
“Public schools work best when they’re community-focused, and kids from the community are going there,” Shupe said.
Newark Charter opened in 2001, when the Christina School District still bussed Newark students to schools in Wilmington for fifth and sixth grade. It was founded by a group of parents and community members who wanted a local option for students.
“In Newark Charter’s original charter application, we were very clear about desiring to create a school that will serve the greater Newark area by having a school that fosters parent involvement,” said NCS Director Frank Newton.
He argued that the 5-mile radius is no different than a traditional public school’s feeder pattern. Other students can apply to a traditional school through the school choice program, but preference is given to students who live in the school’s feeder pattern.
“I want an excellent education for every kid in Delaware. That’s everybody’s goal,” Newton said. “If I had the ability to bring in the 3,000 students that are on my waitlist, we would do that.”
Newton added that removing the radius would increase transportation costs for Newark Charter, which would have to send buses to pick up kids in Wilmington, Middletown and perhaps even farther away.
HB 238 would continue to allow charter schools to give preference to students who live in the school district where the school is located. However, because that preference is not included in NCS’ original charter, if the school decides to go that route, it would have to go through the lengthy process to modify its charter.
Newton said NCS would consider making that modification but has not made a final decision.
He argued that because the bill would also remove the 5-mile radius at two Wilmington schools, it would actually hurt the students that proponents say they are trying to help.
“By removing the 5-mile radius, if I’m a family in Wilmington, I now have a 1 in 4,000 chance to get into Newark Charter School and I have less of an opportunity to get into First State Montessori or East Side, that I can see from my living room, which makes no sense to me at all,” he said.
Cecil Gordon, vice president of the East Side Charter board, made a similar argument. East Side is located adjacent to a Wilmington Housing Authority neighborhood and has a student body that is 93 percent Black and 70 percent low-income.
“The 5-mile radius is a critical component for our school population, most especially as we move forward with the revitalization of the community,” Gordon said. “It becomes critical that we be allowed to serve as the anchor for education in the Riverside community.”
If passed, the bill would not affect any current students; it would simply change the admissions process for next year.
“We are committed to providing excellence in academics and decorum for all of the students that are invited to attend Newark Charter School and are currently here as Patriots. That commitment won’t alter,” Newton said. “How we do that and the ways in which we do that may have to shift, but we are not changing who we are in terms of the level and the quality of what we are offering.”