$26 for 26 in the 26th: Graduate student Madinah Wilson-Anton is running for State House
When Madinah Wilson-Anton was about to graduate Gauger-Cobbs Middle School in Newark, Del. her parents faced a difficult decision: would they send Wilson-Anton to the underfunded public school, or the out-of-district to a charter school?
This question is familiar to any student that grew up native to Delaware. Wilson-Anton attended the Charter School of Wilmington, but her experience taught her firsthand what problems are facing young people in Delaware.
“Comparing my experience with my friend’s experience and my husband’s experience in public schools, I saw just how underfunded a lot of our schools are,” Wilson-Anton said. “And what that really means for a student and [their] families.”
Now 26-years-old and a graduate student at the university, Wilson-Anton is running for the 26th district of the Delaware House of Representatives on a platform of progressive-minded education and economic and ecological reforms. She said she dropped her classes for this semester last Tuesday to focus on her campaign.
“I think growing up in Delaware and going through the system the way it exists now has really given me the insight to know we need to change it,” Wilson-Anton said. “And we can’t wait for a whole other generation to go through it before we change it.”
If elected, Wilson-Anton would be the first Muslim to serve in the state legislature. Part of her campaign slogan is to encourage a $26 donation to her campaign, for a 26-year-old in the 26th district.
Wilson-Anton said one of her earliest memories of problems with public education funding was as a seventh-grader sitting in science class. The teacher told the class that the school had applied for more money, but the referendum failed. So, the class would have to copy a worksheet from a projection at the front of the class the single copy the school could afford at the time.
Wilson-Anton said that at the time she hadn’t understood the policy behind this lack of funding, but her frustration with the situation began a lifetime of involvement in public policy.
Delaware public schools have been criticized for underfunding, mismanagement indicative of policy that leaves students under-supported.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Delaware supported its students in 2016 with an average of $14,713 per pupil, the 12th highest in the nation.
Even so, compared to neighboring states that same year Delaware showed lower scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress proficiency examination.
In 2013, Education Week, a publication that analyzes education issues, evaluated states with “report cards” on a variety of factors. The system, called Quality Counts, shows Delaware falling behind in many elements of educational ranking. Compared to neighboring states, Delaware received a B- in the category “Chance for Success” and a D+ average in the category “K-12 achievement.”
Though with the appearance of high ranking per-student funding, Delaware students still struggle.
Insight from the U.S. Census Bureau illuminates why: in Delaware, the vast majority of school revenue comes from the state at $1,124,112. The number is close to two-thirds of the total revenue of $1,879,594, compared with neighboring states, which match state and local funding closer to a 50-50 spread.
Overall, this means that the state is in charge of where funding is implemented, and in examples like Wilson-Anton’s experience, this leaves entire public school districts underfunded.
The atmosphere of private and charter schools does not help. According to data from the same survey in 2013, Delaware also has the third-highest private school attendance rate in the country. Even in districts with higher income per capita, parents will send their students to a better-funded private or charter school rather than vote on increased local taxes.
Wilson-Anton grew up amidst these problems and is now running to solve them at the local level by fighting on behalf of her home Newark district.
As an undergraduate, Wilson-Anton studied international relations and Asian studies. Originally, she had considered working as an interpreter in the public sector, having received a formal education in Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish.
But it was her time working as a legislative fellow in the state legislature and as a legislative aide for the 26th and 27th districts that Wilson-Anton began to find her passion for taking a direct role in shaping public policy.
“When I was working in the [state] legislature is where I started to see what it really takes to be a legislator,” Wilson-Anton said. “It’s just being part of the community listening to everyone, and learning what their concerns are, and then actually having the courage to stand up and stand for the issues that you care about.”
Wilson-Anton now works as a public policy researcher and event coordinator for the Biden Institute at the university. Not wanting to take a behind-the-scenes role anymore, she has cast her candidacy to directly impact Delaware politics, citing courage and frustration as her inspiration.
“Honestly, frustration is what really inspired me to get involved in this way, seeing a lot of issues not change,” Wilson-Anton said. “Not because there weren’t solutions identified to fix them but there wasn’t the political courage to get it done.”
Wilson-Anton also wants to enact a statewide $15 minimum wage and repeal the “youth training wage” that allows workers under the age of 18 to be paid less than the current $9.25 state-mandated wage.
Wilson-Anton also hopes to protect housing rights in Delaware by creating a new Tenants’ Bill of Rights. She wants to ensure homeowners cannot be pushed out of their homes by landlords that currently have the ability to sell manufactured housing development land out from under residents that own homes.
The graduate student is challenging a fellow Democrat, John Viola, who has held a seat in the 26th district since he was elected in 1998. She worked under Viola in her time as a legislative aide, Wilson-Anton believes she better represents the people of her district and offers a fresh change in leadership.
Wilson-Anton said that younger generations of voters and public policy figures are better equipped to deal with problems in our society. Issues such as climate change and student loan debt are problems that affect her millennial generation and Generation Z and she believes that younger people feel a greater sense of urgency on these matters.
“It is important to get younger people involved before you have kids to take care of and you have other things that come up over responsibility in life,” Wilson-Anton said. “I think it is important for people of all walks of life to get involved. I’m really excited that younger people are getting into the fray and I’m excited to give it a shot.”
Correction: Oct. 29, 11:30 am: A previous version of this article, published at 9:15 pm on Oct. 28, read that Madinah Wilson-Anton was running for the State Senate. It has been corrected to reflect that she is indeed a candidate for the State House of Representatives.