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Rescuing Delaware’s Schools

The Rodel Foundation dove in more than 10 years ago. Its leaders say they won’t give up until Delaware’s education system becomes a model for the world.

By Theresa Gawlas Medoff

Paul Herdman is president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware. The foundation’s Vision 2015 initiative helped  the state land $119 million in Race to the Top funding. Photograph by Jared CastaldiBill Budinger would certainly brush aside the notion that he is some kind of hero. But the Budinger family’s Rodel Foundation has worked assiduously for more than a decade to help rescue Delaware’s public schools from mediocrity. They are exactly the type of heroes championed by filmmaker Davis Guggenheim in “Waiting for Superman,” the award-winning and controversial documentary about what ails the American public education system.

School reform is a subject of intense interest to Budinger. The Rodel Foundation of Delaware has become a major player in the move to shake up the First State’s education system and catapult our schools from middle of the pack to national leaders. Budinger pledges that he is “in this for the long haul”—that is, until the state’s public schools are ranked among the best in the world.

Since it began, the Rodel Foundation has worked to build partnerships between schools, their communities and the business world. It has funded research and fact-finding missions. It has influenced public policy and spending. It advocated for school choice. It has pushed for higher teacher quality and leadership training. It has encouraged parent engagement. And Rodel has pushed for higher standards and accountability—just like the headlining federal initiatives that have been effected since Rodel was established in 1999.

Rodel, and particularly its Vision 2015 initiative, is highly credited for helping the state to pick up $119 million in federal money for school reform last summer in the first round of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top funding competition. Vision 2015 (originally titled Vision 2012) focuses on six major system reforms, four of which were also building blocks of the state’s Race to the Top plan. So far, 25 schools are part of the Vision Network that is putting Rodel-backed reforms into practice.

“We have needed Rodel more than I ever thought we would as a voice of reason and a tap on the shoulder,” says Delaware Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery. “They drew a line in the sand four or five years ago with Vision 2015 and said, ‘As people who care about Delaware, we will hold the state to a higher standard for education.’ I absolutely do not believe that we would be making the progress we have been if we had not had Rodel as the wind at our backs.”

Budinger, his daughter, Susan, and his brother, Don, established the Rodel Foundation with a chunk of the $400 million received in 1998 from the sale of family-owned Rodel Inc., to specialty chemical company Rohm and Haas. A former DuPont salesman, Bill Budinger founded Rodel in 1968 to market synthetic rollers for printing presses coated with the DuPont urethane polymer Corfam. (The company name is a shortened version of Rollers of Delaware.) It was the development in the mid-1970s of a similar substance to polish the crystals used to make computer chips that brought the company its greatest success.
 

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With his retirement from Rodel, Bill, now 71, could have settled into his new Colorado home and put his Delaware chapter behind him. But instead he and his family resolved to give back to the community, pledging at least a third of their profit from the sale of Rodel toward that effort. “We spent time researching how to give in a way that would be most effective,” Bill says, “and we decided that the most important thing for the future of this country is an educated citizenry.

Budinger himself is the product of Illinois public schools. Schools, he says, were different back then.

“The educational system in the United States used to be the best in the world. But today we as a nation face the real prospect that our children will be less educated than we are.”

While the academic achievements of American children have been slipping, he says, other industrialized countries have been investing more in education and outperforming us on standardized tests and graduation rates. “That should alarm us. We won’t be able to compete in a global world if our kids are out-educated,” he says.

Budinger had no illusions about school reform being easy. He knew how many others had failed, but Budinger is not one to give up easily. An inventor with 36 patents to his credit, Budinger has always been dedicated to finding solutions. Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, chairman of Vision 2015, calls Budinger “one of the most creative, visionary people I know. He always looks for a way to get things done and always has ambitious goals.”

There are currently two Rodel Foundations working on school reform. The other is in Arizona, another former site of Rodel Inc. operations. Each got their start with $40 million from the Budingers. The Foundation’s annual outlay in Delaware has been $2 million to $5 million, according to Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware.

Bill, Don and Susan are founding directors of both foundations. Connie Bond Stuart, president of PNC Bank, Delaware, chairs the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, while Don, who lives in Arizona, chairs that organization. (A third foundation, the Rodel Charitable Foundation of Key West, is no longer run or funded by the Budingers. )

“For Bill, this is very personal,” Herdman says. “He was able to use his education in such a way as to build a business and raise a family. He was part of the Greatest Generation. He came from simple means and started a business that he grew from nothing to a multinational business. He sees supporting education as the highest and best use of his money.”
 

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Gov. Jack Markell served on the Rodel Foundation’s Advisory Board before he began his campaign for governor. He says he values having the Rodel Foundation as “a strong advocate out there watching and pushing us and giving us access to ideas from around the country.” Just as important, he adds, Budinger, as a former businessman here, has a thorough knowledge of the state that he and his staff use to tailor solutions for Delaware.

Budinger and others speak highly of the Rodel Foundation staff led by Herdman, a teacher turned education leader who came to Delaware in 2004 fresh off successes in educational reform enacted under two Massachusetts governors. Though Budinger relies on Herdman for day-to-day operations, he is fully invested in strategic decision-making for the foundation.

“The big idea is his,” Herdman says. “We as a nation have been wrestling with education reform from the federal level or from philanthropies investing in big cities. Bill suggested that we instead focus on the state as a unit.”

Since the states are the primary funders and influencers of education, Budinger reasoned, Delaware’s small size made it an optimal starting point. The First State has fewer than 130,000 students enrolled in its public schools, compared to 1.1 million students under the purview of the New York City Department of Education, the country’s largest public school system.

With a governor who strongly supports education reform, a highly regarded secretary of education, and broad consensus among the public and private sectors about what needs to happen in our schools, Delaware is poised for success, Herdman says. Once we do achieve a high-performing state system of education—and Budinger and his Rodel staff have no doubt we will—it can be duplicated in other states. Already, Herdman says, groups are approaching Rodel to learn how the organization has managed to build widespread, effective collaboration.

And that is the ultimate aspiration of the Rodel Foundation—not only to make Delaware’s school system a world leader, but to share those lessons with other states and transform the entire U.S. educational system.