COVID-19 Throws Curveballs at Legislative Session, but Education Budget Remains Largely Unscathed

July 7th, 2020

Category: News

In a historic legislative session—punctuated by the COVID-19 outbreak that suspended the legislature for most of session starting in March—no new bills related to public education were passed.

While the pandemic triggered statewide budget cuts and little in the way of new investments, the Fiscal Year 2021 Delaware budget maintains its commitment to most educational items, and lays the foundation for work to come. In partnership with the Vision Coalition, the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee, the Education Equity Coalition and First State Pre-K, we focused on a handful of key issues:

  • To ensure our earliest learners got a good start, particularly those most in need, we advocated for increasing support for early childhood and pre-K. The FY21 budget maintains funding for Purchase of Care subsidies and the STARs Quality Rating System, and includes new commitments to consolidating governance and determining a true cost of child care.
  • To more equitably address the needs of low-income children and children who don’t speak English as a first language, we advocated for continued support of Opportunity Funding and a push for a fundamental shift to our funding system. The FY21 budget makes room for the former: Opportunity Funding adds per-pupil amounts for low-income students and English learners across all grade levels.
  • To build a stronger, more diverse teacher pipeline, we championed ongoing financial support for our teacher residency programs, which the FY21 budget maintains.
  • To help young people build a stronger bridge to college and careers, we are working to ensure that the state’s nationally recognized career pathways gets the sustainable public funding it needs to grow.

Any bills that were introduced and didn’t pass will need to be reintroduced and start the process over again next year if legislators chose. A new legislature will convene in January 2021 after elections in November and after school reconvenes for the new school year. In the coming weeks, the state Department of Education is expected to release a framework to plan for the safe reopening of Delaware school buildings based on the guidance from three working groups and public input

Looking ahead, some promising signals emerged for Rodel and its partners.

…  

Early Learning. We saw the promise of Senate Bill 187, which passed last session by Sen. Nicole Poore and sponsored in the House by Rep. Kim Williams and is currently being implemented. The bill represented a first step toward unified and streamlined early learning governance in Delaware, connecting the Delaware Stars for Early Success standards with the Office of Child Care Licensing regulations, and moving the Office of Child Care Licensing from the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families to the Department of Education.

Long story short, it’s a win for streamlining government functions toward early childhood leaders working with just one point of contact versus 11 state agencies. And today it’s being operationalized, along with other consolidation efforts, including hiring an Associate Secretary in DDOE to oversee early childhood and consolidating 0-3 early intervention services with the Division of Public Health.

Another step forward in early childhood: the Delaware Department of Health and Human Services is legislatively required to conduct a Cost of Care study for the first time. Information from this new study will shed light on the true cost of providing quality early childhood education in Delaware and will be more accurate than the market rate study that is currently used to set rates to reimburse childcare providers.

Governor Carney also opened the door to expanding pre-K in Delaware in his FY21 recommended budget in January. The governor’s recommended budget included: “increasing state funding to increase ECAP, the Early Childhood Assistance Program, by 50 percent over the next three years.” Though it was cut from the final FY21 budget alongside most proposals for “new” or increased funding, this would have been the first expansion of ECAP, Delaware’s only state-sponsored comprehensive pre-K program, in 25 years.

The $5 million  proposed investment would open up around 155 seats for young learners and increase the number of children served by 50 percent over three years, but we know we can build upon this and aim higher since very few Delaware children have access to state-supported pre-K and Delaware ranks near the bottom nationally in terms of pre-K access.

As advocates have noted, high-quality pre-K programs have the power to shape a child’s future. ECAP currently is only a half-day program, with fewer requirements for teacher qualifications and class size.

However, this is an encouraging sign that Governor Carney and Delaware are committed to a mixed delivery system (which includes districts, private providers and Head Start, all of which currently benefit from ECAP), and supporting the early learning workforce.

Fair Funding. The Education Equity Delaware coalition ramped up its grassroots advocacy by launching the Education Funding Organizer program, a platform for advocates to converge and build their knowledge of education funding and advocate for excellent and equitable opportunities for all Delaware students by working collaboratively with the coalition to engage and educate their communities (see thoughts from one of them below). Separately, a decision on the county track of the lawsuit Delawareans for Educational Opportunity v. Carney provides further momentum for statewide systemic change.

Strong coalitions that we support have elevated voices of the community and forged stronger relationships with legislative champions. Partners in the First State Pre-K campaign advocated through events, testimony to the Joint Finance Committee, and email campaigns to kept pressure on Delaware legislators for investments in Delaware’s youngest learners. The Education Funding Organizers met with their legislators and other education stakeholders to ask questions, raise concerns, and discuss solutions.

We’ve lent our voice to federal advocacy effort. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law by President Trump on March 27, provides funding and flexibilities for states to respond to the COVID-19 emergency in K-12 schools, childcare, and higher education. CARES emphasizes career pathways and workforce development, enhanced reimbursement of childcare, and broadband access for remote learning—which Delaware has invested in. To ensure education will continue to be a priority, we’ve:

  • In a letter to U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, Rodel president and CEO Paul Herdman urged for a range of COVID-19 supports, including across-the-board education stabilization funds, basic needs for early childhood education, trauma care for children and educators, and a pause on student loan payments.
  • Along with dozens of education organizations, we signed a letter to congressional leaders urging them to steer additional stabilization dollars toward K-12 and higher education needs.
  • We endorsed the federal Child Care Is Essential Act, a proposed $50 billion childcare stabilization fund that would support childcare providers who experience a drop in revenue or have added expenses during and after the pandemic, including increased compensation for early childhood educators.

What’s next? We look forward to working with our partners on what matters for children. We will keep advocating for solutions to fundamental challenges that have been laid bare in light of COVID-19, such as:

Author:
Neil Kirschling

nkirschling@rodelde.org

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