Public education leadership past due, so they might want to call on du Pont

Sam Waltz
Sam Waltz
Founding Publisher

The next governor of the First State needs to call on a du Pont family member to tend public education for the next generation, and beyond.

Public education in Delaware has benefitted from 200-plus years of the family’s patrician interest in public education, although most generations of the du Pont family have eschewed public education for their young in favor of schools like Tower Hill School, The Pilot School and others.

But none of that detracts from the good they’ve done for the rest of us, a contribution far in excess of noblesse oblige.

It was not until Feb. 12, 1829, that the Delaware General Assembly got around to chartering public education with its Act for the Establishment of Free Schools. Before that, and since, the du Ponts have been up to their necks in Delaware public education.

Two items in my library and an epic historical event in the first half of the 20th Century corroborate that.

One of them is “National Education in The United States of America,” University of Delaware Press (1923), translated from the 2nd French edition of 1812, written by Pierre S. du Pont (1739-1817) at the request of Thomas Jefferson after 15 years of close friendship, including their shared interest in the classics. The book lays out the scheme for what became public education in America.

The other is an address delivered at a meeting of the Rotary Club, Wilmington, Delaware, November 18, 1937, by Pierre S. du Pont, the speech manuscript that I bought when it was deaccessioned 30 years ago from the Wilmington Public Library.

And it was Mr. du Pont (1870-1954) who put his own skin in the game, leading a consolidation of Delaware schools and school districts from 120 or so district to some 20 districts, contributing $5 million or so to the schools, another $1 million to the construction of the original Howard High School, and some $2 million to the University of Delaware, all in the span of about 10 to 15 years from the late teens through the 1920s.

“…there was little achieved in Delaware’s educational system between 1915 and 1940 that was not influenced by Pierre S. du Pont,” wrote Robert J. Taggart in his “Private Philanthropy and Public Education: Pierre S. du Pont and the Delaware Schools 1890-1940,” Associated University Presses (1988).

Aside from the Border State blemish of segregation, and the accompanying underlying social prejudice, Delaware schools of that pre-World War II period were regarded as among the country’s best. Today, many observers regard Delaware’s schools collectively as among the country’s worst.

“In metric after metric after metric, Delaware schools rank among the worst,” says Clint Laird, an active supporter of the Caesar Rodney Institute, a non-partisan free-market Delaware think thank with interests in public policy for education, taxation, regulation and business.

The issue that Laird himself points to is the federal usurpation of local control of public education, the domination of education by unelected anonymous federal bureaucrats — accompliced by state education bureaucrats — who have robbed the school districts, intended to be a form and product of local government and control, of their prerogatives. 

Laird has championed The BOLD Plan, an education reform initiative conceived and created by Ron Russo, a Delawarean who helped create what came to be ranked as one of America’s finest schools, the Charter School of Wilmington, and who for years ran St. Mark’s High School credited, too, with being among the State’s finest. (Full disclosure, my daughter attended St. Mark’s under Russo, and my younger son attended two years at Charter under Russo before transferring to Cab Calloway School for the Arts where he graduated.)

The BOLD Plan is characterized by shifting the answer to the question “who decides?” back to local control. It reflects autonomy and authority by the head of the school, often the principal, with accountability to the board representing the stakeholders.

Gov. Jack Markell’s options for returning important educational decisions to local control — which appears to hold little interest for him, critics say — are closing as fast as an Eagles’ offense down 4 scores and entering the final two-minute time out.

Maybe an introduction of the likely future Gov. John Carney is in order to Eleuthere Irenee’ “There” du Pont, himself a Stanford engineer and MBA, and a director of the DuPont Co., Burris Logistics, and WSFS Bank.

In his role as president of the du Pont family’s Longwood Foundation, There du Pont has shown an unusual interest in educational reform, with some broad-based support ($10 million order of magnitude) for charter schools, which were conceived in Delaware as models of educational innovation and growth.

And, more than most, There du Pont is a creative problem-solver by nature, asking all the right questions, with no sacred cows allowed.

Delaware Secretary of Education There du Pont.

It has a nice ring to it. One that reflects a 200-year-old legacy! And the promise of restoration of greatness to public education.

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