Eric Cantor could learn a thing or two from Delaware’s charter school success

Joanne Butler Contributor
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Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote about the House Republican agenda for 2014, which included a passing reference on expanding access to charter schools. Note to Mr. Cantor:  you should meet my hair stylist here in Wilmington. Not for a haircut (though her skills are excellent), but because she’s a great example of the impact of charter schools on a family.

Earlier this month she received news that her young daughter was accepted into the Odyssey Charter Lower School of Wilmington. She was thrilled and rightly so; there were 300 applicants for 20 slots.

When she first told me that she had put her daughter (let’s call her Emily) into the Odyssey lottery, I was a bit surprised.  Odyssey, as the name indicates, was begun by the Wilmington area’s Greek-American communities, and it includes language classes in Greek.  My stylist and her husband are blue-collar folks, never went to college, and have no Greek ancestry.

I asked my stylist, “You know they teach Greek there?” Her response: “It’s a great school, and that’s what matters most to me.”

Why does that matter most? Because she and her husband want Emily to have more opportunities and a better life.  This is the bedrock of the American Dream.

Currently, Delaware has 22 operating charter schools with more on the way. This is impressive for a little state that has twice as many U.S. Senators than Congressmen (do the math) and one area code (302).

Many of these charter schools, like Odyssey, have a certain specialty. One of the most popular charter high schools is the Delaware Military Academy, an all-Navy Junior ROTC institution located in northern Delaware. An impressive 97 percent of their graduates go on to higher education and receive $5 million in scholarships annually.

DMA is so popular that a similar charter JROTC high school is in the works to serve students in the central and southern regions of the state.

Another suggestion for Mr. Cantor: how about encouraging land-grant universities (where the federal government already has an extensive role) to establish charter schools?  Delaware’s got one: it’s the Early College High School at Delaware State University – an historically black land-grant institution.

Here’s one more: increase the number of charter schools operating on or near U.S. military bases. A few bases already have charter schools on site, or a public charter that has seats reserved for military families. The House Republican goal should be that all bases with military family housing have a charter school on site or one nearby with special access for children living on base.

Returning to the Delaware experience, if I’ve led you to think it’s easy to open a charter school here, you’d be wrong. While Delaware is more open than many states to the charter concept (even though it’s mostly a blue state), raising money to open a school and dealing with the state and county educational bureaucracies is a challenge.

But we in Delaware are fortunate to have a committed cadre of people who, step by step, are working hard to improve the education that our young people deserve. And, as my stylist can attest, the demand for more charter schools is extremely high.

So, Mr. Cantor, if you’re looking for an issue in 2014 that will appeal across party and racial lines: it’s charter schools. The Delaware experience is living proof of that, and I suggest you come see for yourself.

Just one warning: if someone here offers you Delaware scrapple, decline politely; it’s not kosher. Besides, there’s a reason we call scrapple ‘the other gray meat’ and you really don’t want to know why – trust me.