Man of the Left (w/Leo Strine)

An Interview with Judge Leo E Strine Jr

 · August 12, 2020

Judge Leo E Strine, Jr. is a singularly unique figure on the Delaware political scene.  Now retired from public service and in private practice, Strine was both the head judge (Chancellor) of the Chancery Court and Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court.  While he still speaks of the elected Democratic party officials in Delaware in cordial terms (he is admittedly friends with many of them), his analysis of the state’s economic, social and educational problems is sharp and clear.  

In this previously released episode of the Highlands Bunker podcast, Strine and I center our conversation on an academic paper he authored describing the problems of neoliberal capitalism and what prescriptions he proposes to help solve them.  While one may not think a former State Supreme Court Chief and legal scholar could have radical progressive ideas, Strine is a sophisticated thinker whose ideas demand a close reading and meaningful consideration.

Below is an excerpt of the conversation in which Strine fleshes-out an example of “upside-down” priorities of Delaware’s resource allocation and their impact. 

This exchange begins at 42:55.  Minor edits were made for clarity.

Rob –  But the incentives here where I live is for people to send their children to Tatnall, Tower Hill, Friends, and so there’s no incentive to do anything [to address public school deficiencies], but there is an incentive to say, ok, the police are a public service that these affluent people need.  They don’t need the schools to be good.  They don’t need the buses to be good because they don’t take the bus.  I think there’s a connection between the corporate incentives that we talked about and sending the police out to guard private property and to be incented to do it in a particular way.  That’s the connection I would make between those two things.

Judge Strine –  I think that we are crazy in Delaware. I think our business community knows it more than ever.  To think there has not been a huge economic cost to the profound racial inequality that exists in our state.  And that was deepened in this century by resegregation.  Frankly, everybody can criticize the busing order all they want.  We didn’t have atrocity schools that were created where we created high-poverty schools without giving them any resources to deal with it.  That did not exist before this century.  We had come a long way.  We’ve now gone backwards on that.

The business community, you’re right, people can exempt them.  But you got to remember, out my way.  I grew up in Hockessin.  Our schools were closed when I was a kid because the elementary schools the kids went into the city.  Now reopen North Star, Brandywine Springs –  there’s a new school called Cooke.  Those schools are predominantly White/Asian. In fact, I think North Star is like 99% White/Asian.  You don’t have to go to a private school out here. You know why?  They have the most expensive, credentialed teaching staff in all of Red Clay [school district].  

And let’s put on the table something from the Right.  You mentioned police unions.  What about teacher’s unions?  I have a modest suggestion.  Until you are at year 20 as an educator you work at the school that you’re needed at on the basis of educational impact.  And school districts have to assign teachers and other administrative staff on the basis of need.  We have an upside-down allocation of public resources in school systems in New Castle County.  You would think that the most experienced, credentialed teachers, at the core of the thing, I would give seniority after year 20, but you’re in that sweet spot.  When you hit year 5 to year 20 where you’re not a rookie anymore  You still have enthusiasm and experience.  Wouldn’t any business send them where they were needed most?  But why is it that they’re at North Star and Brandywine Springs and Cooke?  Then when you go into Red Clay in Wilmington and you look at Shortlidge and the schools that have high need, high poverty, high minority populations it’s all the rookie teachers.  How are we going to get good teachers to come to New Castle County if coming here means you have the toughest assignment and the lowest support?  The business community and the political community knows the facts.  They don’t want to deal with the blowback from the teachers union.  Again, I have teachers in my family.  I think teaching is a wonderful job.  It is a hard job.  But we have our priorities upside down.

You’re so right that part of what I’m talking about is lip service.  We have people who’ve been talking lip service about equality in our state.  They do things around the margins.  I got to say the bail reform was real and seems to be working in a positive way.  That was a real thing.  But on education – there’s actually a group and I believe Senator Lockman is leading it – to look at the schools – but I think the report was told to be put back well past the election.  So that no one really talks about the issue in the election.  And we’ll probably come out of the pandemic and be told we can’t do anything.

Reallocating the teachers doesn’t cost extra money.  As you know from reading my paper I believe that we ought to have a full year school system particularly for schools that are in poverty – and a full day.  And we ought to have special resources for the schools in Wilmington if we’re going to do what we did.  And we ought to have a Northern – and this is where your point about money and everything is: 

The richest two school districts in Delaware are basically Brandywine and Red Clay.  It’s not coincidental that they’re adjacent to Wilmington. There’s no reason you can’t create a northern New Castle County school district that takes in Red Clay and Brandywine and all of the city that has a very attractive tax base and give that district special taxing authority.  No one is talking about busing kids anymore into Wilmington unless they want to go.  By the way, I played a role in the Charter School of Wilmington being founded.  Kids begged to go to that school in Wilmington.  It shows that transportation time isn’t really the thing.

Why can’t we have a Northern New Castle County school district with real tax authority?  Where we do justice by the kids in the city school.  Then create a central New Castle County. district and a southern one.  That would make sense for taxpayers and kids.  But it’s politically, you know, the thing about it is you might upset some people.  And the question is are we to serve the public – and particularly the least among us.

What I worry about a little in this moment, because I see some real positive forces for change and you probably do, is that people will just do cosmetics.  They’ll do some tinkering around the margins around chokeholds and around the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, but they fundamentally won’t fix a bloated, unfair, disproportionate criminal code that is unfair to Black people.  They won’t fix an educational system that has resegregated black kids in the city of Wilmington into high poverty schools without fair resources and is giving them the short shrift in terms of who they get as teachers and principals.  And is being unfair to the staff in those schools because the staff in those schools have challenges and they’re not being given resources to meet them.

Those are the fundamental issues.  Eyeball test for us in Delaware.  They have nothing to do with Donald Trump.  They have everything to do with whether we actually can look poor people and Black people in the eye and say that we’re living up to our obligation as their fellows.  I think we need to ask those fundamental questions of ourselves.  Unless we ask them and answer them then the cosmetics are just that.  It’s just an excuse to stay in an office – to get through a moment – and you’re not really tackling what’s real.