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Friday, January 29, 2021

Proposed Delaware Libertarian Education Policies

This was copy/pasted with permission from a post in the Delaware for Liberty Facebook group by former NCCo LPD Chair Steve Newton.


So in response to a relatively legit criticism that I should provide content rather than just sniping at what's posted here, here's a partial draft of the kind of issues surrounding public education that I believe Libertarians in Delaware should be running on. (Or at least be aware of.) This is not comprehensive, but it is meant to explore the kinds of issues, positions, and issue knowledge that libertarians will need to have be seen as credible candidates, while still advancing toward more libertarian positions.

I will cover four potential items -- (1) an elected State Board of Education; (2) School Bus Retirement Schedules; (3) eliminating the prevailing wage requirement for construction/renovation of school building; and (4) extending the provisions for Home Schools to Home School "pods."
The first thing to ask yourself as you read this is why libertarians would even go so far down into the details of a Statist public school system, when the LP platform basically calls for the elimination of State-funded education? The answer is pretty simple: State-funded education is not going to disappear in the near future, and most people are not even ready to have that conversation, much less vote for somebody who is saying that. They have not been trained to think out of that box yet.
These issues, however, are designed to introduce more libertarian elements into the existing system with the idea of, and once they are accepted and work, provides us with more credibility and visibility. The second part of the strategy revolves around actually introducing elements into that system that are inherently destabilizing for the system as such in the long term.
(1) State Board of Education elections. The staple idea of local control of schools, such as it still tenuously exists, is based on the concept of the non-partisan, elected school board. This is intended to give parents and community members final control over their own school districts through electing their own candidates to the school board. The local school board approves all policies under which the district runs, and has immense power to mediate against State and even federal incursions. This is, despite its inherent fractiousness (a feature, not a bug), one of the most directly representative entities in our entire governance system, because they can't even (except in vo-tech school districts) raise local taxes without a referendum.
However, the State Board of Education, which is supposed to perform similar tasks at the next level up, is not a voice for the parents and families in the DE school system, but a congregation of people appointed (often as direct political favors) by the Governor. The State Board has the power to set policies at the State level, and has certain appellate responsibilities regarding special education, charter schools, and a few other cases. It is also the organization that approves all charter school applications, and passes on statewide graduation requirements.
So why should not the State Board of Education also represent the parents and families of Delaware by being directly elected in the same non-partisan elections that select regular School Board members? There are a number of proposed schemas for dividing the State into voting districts for such elections, and the elections could be staggered (one third elected every two years) so as not to destroy continuity.
Who would support: most local school boards, anybody who has been negatively affected by Board policy decisions (there are literally thousands of them, because the Board has made some whopper bad decisions over the past decade), and -- interestingly enough -- the teachers' union. It may sound strange to find libertarians on the same side as DSEA on any issue, but they would be ... up to a point (I would personally support using conflict of interest rules to make it illegal for anyone who is an employee of a school district or charter school to sit on the State Board). Also, the Delaware PTA would support this idea (individual high officers have done so in the past).
Who would oppose: most Democrats and Republicans because the current system cements their power at the State level.
Now consider this -- libertarians statewide advocating in concert with the DSEA and DE PTA AGAINST Republicans and Democrats. You want to become part of the public dialogue? This can make it happen. Also, if it were ever to pass (I'd guess it will take about 3 years from start to finish), it would be significantly easier for a libertarian to get elected to that Statewide office because it is non-partisan.
(2) School bus retirement (This is a lower taxes issue). Right now in the DE State Code districts and school bus companies are required to stop using buses that are either 14 years old or have 190,000 miles on them, regardless of mechanical reliability. They have to be replaced. Interestingly enough, the industry standard is at least 17 years old and 250K, but several states have a "certified mechanical reliability" standard that allows buses to be kept in service as long as an independent inspector attests to their safety.
Just changing from 14-17 years for mandatory replacement would save the taxpayers about $60 million per year. Going to a mechanical reliability standard would save us close to $100 million per year in taxpayer-subsidized transportation costs.
Why do we have this system? Because we have an excellent private school lobby. You may not realize that, despite the existence of school choice and charters, Delaware has one of the largest private school school percentages of the school-age population per capita in America. I have not checked in several years, but back in 2016, for example, New Castle County had the fourth highest private school attendance percentage per capita in the entire country.
Where do private schools in Delaware get their school bus fleets? They buy them happily from school districts required to retire perfectly good buses at 14 years, and then run them for at least another 10 years because the DE State Code for School Buses DOES NOT COVER private schools. And they lobby their state legislators ever single time this comes up to kill any changes. Thus we have the interesting spectacle that your tax dollars are not only being taken from you to support "public" schools, but also to support "private" schools (who also get State-funded School Nurses, Drivers' Education programs, and all sorts of other goodies while piously declaiming their independence).
We are literally paying about $100 million in excess education taxes (carefully hidden in 3-4 different budget line items) to support bus fleets for private schools.
Big irony: this information originally came from a State-commissioned report back in 2008 recommending changes to public education to save money (or at least put it back in the classroom). If you recall, that was the year that Jack Markell successfully primaried John Carney for the Dem gubernatorial nomination. Here's the irony: BOTH men ran supporting the recommendations of this report (including specific reference to school buses AND the prevailing wage issue that is covered below), and BOTH became Governor, and NEITHER followed through.
Who would support: almost all public school districts and school bus companies, for whom this would be a huge savings; most liberal/progressive Democrats, and fiscally conservative Republicans. The private school lobby would oppose as hard as it could. The placement for libertarians is classic -- cut taxes, reduce red tape, improve performance -- while avoiding any extremism label by pointing out that not one but two Democratic governors supported this once and lacked the guts to do anything about it.
(3) Prevailing wage requirement -- one of the reasons we cannot fix Delaware's crumbling school infrastructure is that all major renovations or construction is REQUIRED, whether the contractor is union or not, to pay "prevailing wages." The schedule of wages is so high that the same 2008 report suggested that by dumping it we would save $300 million in tax dollars annually on school construction costs (split between State and local funds). That's 12 years ago -- estimates I have seen since suggest this figure today is closer to $500 million ...
This is great positioning against the deleterious impact of the construction unions -- at what point does it cease to make sense that a "carpenter's assistant" should be making $45/hour? According to the last prevailing wage chart I checked, the carpenter is supposed to be making $115/hour. The irony here is that most construction work done in the state of Delaware for private concerns is NOT done under prevailing wage contracts. And most of the prevailing wage work is actually done by out of state contractors, so the money does not even stay in circulation here.
The elimination of this provision in State construction contracts has been a hot potato that even DE Republicans have been afraid to touch ... but you can be guaranteed that it plays well with taxpayers.
(4) Extend home schooling protections to "pods" -- you probably don't know it, but Delaware is about the third-easiest state in the nation to set yourself up as a home school (which is something that has to be constantly protected). Now imagine if we could extend that to the creation of home school "pods" of multiple families, who would then be able to do things like hire college students to teach science classes (which is currently prohibited to them).
Why is this a take-off idea? Because COVID made a lot of upper middle class families start to think seriously about pulling their kids out of public schools and creating such pods in their neighborhoods, complete with hiring their own teachers ... only to discover that it's not legal under current DE law. This is the perfect time to get ahead of that issue and bring a libertarian idea to people who have never even considered anything but the R and D mainstream in their lives. But now they have seen how the existing system have let them down.
Equally cool, it would drive DSEA crazy and put us on the opposite side of this question while still making common cause with them on an elected State Board. Remember that the LP calls itself the "Party of Principle"? Well, education presents a unique opportunity, even in heavily Democratic Delaware, to walk that walk in a way that will get us support.
Ironically, such opportunities exist in considering transportation, the environment (did you know that something like 31 of the 50 worst polluting sites in Delaware are government owned?), prison reform, bail reform, and a host of other issues.
But we are outsiders, and we have to (a) do our homework, and (b) get down to work on these issues in non-election years, so that when you run for office you can say, "Remember I am the guy who has been fighting for the past two years to save taxpayers $100 million per year in school transportation while not compromising safety. What Democrat or Republican can say the same?"
Maybe I am completely wrong. But I have seen this approach in Delaware work -- and the beauty of it is that you do even have to win elections to make a difference.

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