This lecture, delivered as the 2017 James R. Soles Lecture on the Constitution and Citizenship at the University of Delaware, addresses whether Delaware has lived up to the constitutional principles of equality. Delaware, although a part of the Union, was a slave state, and after the Civil War, a Jim Crow state. It was slow to embrace the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, although Delaware Chancellor Collins J. Seitz had ruled for the black plaintiffs in Belton v. Delaware and ordered their admission to the formerly all-white schools. Ultimately, a metropolitan desegregation remedy was put in place by the federal courts in the late 1970s, after state officials dragged their feet and failed to implement an effective plan for desegregation.
The Court’s remedy effectively desegregated the New Castle County schools and prevented the creation of schools with high concentrations of poverty. In the 1990s, the State sought and obtained freedom from court supervision, arguing that it had gone beyond the court’s mandate in desegregating schools and could be trusted to ensure the rights of all children. Now, it is 2017. What has happened?
Delaware’s major city, Wilmington, remains divided among four school districts with a majority suburban voting base, created by the State to implement the court-ordered desegregation plan, but these school districts no longer seek to create racial balance in their schools. Wilmington now has elementary schools that are overwhelmingly high-minority and high-poverty. Middle schools of the same kind exist, and persistent economic and educational gaps between white and black children exist. During this period of resegregation, crime has grown in northern New Castle County to the point where Wilmington has a murder rate among the highest in the nation. Drop-out rates and youth crime rates among black kids far exceed those among white kids.
Yet, no extra resources have been given to the schools that face the greatest challenges and, in fact, in terms of the most important resource — teachers — the staff in urban schools have less experience than the staff in suburban schools with high income and low minority populations.
In this lecture, Chief Justice Strine asks whether Delawareans, having said we could protect the rights of our black children, are prepared to face the constitutional mirror test, and to recognize that kids who have less, need more — especially kids and families who have been victimized by hundreds of years of discrimination.
Rather than just identify the problem, Chief Justice Strine outlines a potential reform plan that would reorganize the New Castle County schools so that Wilmington was part of one well-resourced and geographically compact Northern New Castle County school district. This would allow for the selection of a high quality educational leader who could put in place a coherent plan to address the needs of poor children.
The Chief Justice also suggests the following: a 220-day school year; a full day, including an early arrival option with breakfast, after-school homework time, nutritious snacks, and activities; and a requirement that students grade seven and up engage in an after-school activity year round.
Because this plan is focused on poverty, it addresses racial inequality in a race-neutral way—nearly 60% of black families in Delaware are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, as compared to 26% of white families. The plan also addresses the needs of all twenty-first century families as the extended school year would reduce the need for expensive summer camps and tutors; the extended school day and added extracurricular activities would reduce before and after-care costs for working parents; and the addition of nutritious meals during the school day would reduce the burden on impoverished families.
Further, the plan can be scaled up and implemented across the state, cutting redundancies and inefficient overhead costs throughout Delaware school districts and providing a coherent district-wide approach to classroom instruction.
In terms of how it can be financed, Chief Justice Strine points out that Delawareans pay far lower tax rates than they did when the state was more prosperous. He notes that failing to invest in education will continue to cost Delawareans in terms of crime, lost jobs, and hopelessness, finally asking, “[H]ow can we afford not to if we really care about our constitutional commitment to equality?”