Our Views: Delavan-Darien School District’s problems go beyond racism

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Sunday, July 9, 2017

The exodus of students from the Delavan-Darien School District is not as easily explained as School Board President Jeff Scherer claims.

“Our district is 50 percent Hispanic. There’s just some people that are racist—they don’t want to send their kids to a school that’s half Hispanic. It’s that simple,” he told The Gazette last month.

Racism is likely part of problem, but the school district’s hemorrhaging of students has many other factors. The evidence suggests these students and their parents believe other districts offer better educational opportunities. While some of these families might harbor racist beliefs, nobody should dismiss or discount their discontent with the district’s educational offerings, as Gazette reporter Xavier Ward documented in a June 27 story.

Everybody agrees this outflow from open enrollment is hurting the Delavan-Darien School District. Because state aid follows students, the district’s financial outlook has been steadily deteriorating. It’s a vicious cycle—student losses beget funding losses, which beget student losses and on and on. If anyone or anything is to blame for the district’s desperate situation, it’s the structure of public education, which rewards the best performers and punishes the worst.

Parents and students leaving the district are reacting in predictable fashion to this punitive scheme. They are flowing to the best performers—in this case Elkhorn and Williams Bay—with the most resources. That’s not racism. That’s just common sense.

A districts’ academic performance speaks for itself, and the Delavan-Darien School District is wanting, though we realize many students excel in the district and go on to accomplish great things. Who can blame parents for trying to give their children an edge by switching to a different district?

It’s no coincidence that the two districts—Elkhorn and Williams Bay—receiving the bulk of students from the Delavan-Darien School District also boast higher ACT scores. The average ACT score for a Delavan-Darien student was 20.7 in 2014-15, while Elkhorn’s average was 22.1, and Williams Bay’s average was 24.1. While ACT scores are only one consideration in the college application process, they are important. Such statistics would weigh on any parent contemplating options for a college-bound child.

Delavan-Darien’s problems should be openly discussed, not buried or glossed over in an effort to “keep up appearances.” The district faces challenges that school officials and board members alone cannot be expected to solve.

The open enrollment system is not without merit. We applaud the application of market forces that open enrollment brings to public education. When school districts are allowed to compete for students, school districts will innovate to make themselves more attractive.

But what happens to school districts that are unable to pull themselves out of a flat spin? Delavan-Darien has innovated with its dual language immersion program and a new technical education program, but still it continues to lose students. It needs more resources to experiment and find solutions.

For Delavan-Darien and other school districts in the similar circumstances, it’s difficult to see an end to the stresses imposed by open enrollment.

A troubled school district harms the whole region. Its problems can cross borders and ultimately threaten the academic performance of neighboring districts. So how do we stop this trend? What steps should the state take to repair, instead of punish, troubled districts?

We don’t claim to know the answers, but local lawmakers, educators and parents should be searching for them.

One thing we do know is that blaming each other or assigning ulterior motives to parents’ enrollment decisions is not helpful.

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