Delaware’s General Assembly Concludes Challenging First Half
On June 30th, the Delaware Legislature concluded the first half of the 148th General Assembly. This year legislators were plagued by a challenging budget cycle with a projected revenue shortfall of $27 million for fiscal year 2016. In terms of education, there were a number of controversial issues considered.
As the federal Race to the Top grant comes to a close, Governor Jack Markell proposed adding $7.5 million to the FY16 education budget to fund a range of initiatives to provide supports to educators and school leaders, and to maintain quality data systems. Given the many pressures on our state budget, the final approved budget includes $3.75 million dollars to sustain initiatives previously funded by the Race to the Top grant that will support:
- Next Generation Science Standards
- College readiness activities
- Common Ground for the Common Core
- Teacher preparation initiatives
- Technology support for the Educator Insight Portal
The most notable education debate this session revolved around parental concerns about standardized testing. Rep. John Kowalko sponsored HB 50 which codifies the right for the parent or guardian of a child to opt out of the state and district assessments. After substantial public feedback, including Paul Herdman’s comments to the Senate Education Committee, and much discussion in both the House and Senate, the bill passed at the end of June. The education community now waits in anticipation to see how Gov. Markell will respond to the bill. In an attempt to address the legitimate concerns around over-testing students, SJR 2 (Sokola) requires the Department of Education to conduct an inventory of district and state assessments and report the results. A group will be assembled to conduct an in-depth review of the inventory results to make recommendations for consolidation or elimination of assessments, to be completed by June 30, 2016.
Less controversial but just as critical, the legislature created the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission as a result of the work of the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee (WEAC). Established in September 2014 by executive order, the WEAC published its final report, “Strengthening Wilmington Education: An Action Agenda” in March 2015. Following its release, five bills were introduced that were aligned with that plan. Some bills received a lot of legislative support, some did not move this session because they had significant financial implications, but all will require continued community input and involvement.
- Rep. Helene Keeley sponsored HB 148 to create the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission to promote and support the implementation of all recommended changes from the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee, particularly school district realignment. It is charged with developing a transition plan and a resource plan by December 31, 2015 that must be submitted first to the State Board of Education and then to the General Assembly and the governor for final approval.
- Sen. Margaret Rose Henry sponsored SB 122 to give the State Board of Education the authority to change school district boundaries in New Castle County once it adopts the plans developed by the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission.
- Rep. Charles Potter sponsored HB 56 w/HA 1, the strategic planning bill that provides a moratorium on all new charter schools in Delaware until June 30, 2018 or until the State Board of Education develops a strategic plan for the number of charter, district, and vocational-technical schools in the state. This bill was signed on May 5th.
- In April, HB 117 w/ HA 1 was introduced by Rep. Heffernan. This legislation would create a funding source for students enrolled in Delaware public schools who are determined as low-income according to federal guidance. A local district contribution would be expected to match appropriations made for units for low-income students, and could be funded with a match tax. The bill was voted out of the House Education Committee but was stalled in the House Appropriations Committee due to a fiscal note that would require $12 million annually from the state, and over $5 million annually from districts.
- Rep. Kim Williams sponsored HB 30, a bill that proposes provided state funding to kindergarten through third grade for basic special education. Due to financial constraints, the bill remains with the House Appropriations Committee.
After thoughtful deliberation and discussion, the General Assembly acted on SB 31, to extend the sunset provision on Teach For America (TFA) – Delaware to 2018. This bill allows the TFA program to continue to recruit and train teachers from Delaware schools and from across the nation to teach in Delaware’s highest needs schools.
One of the most practical bills considered in session was led by Rep. Williams, HB 146, which establishes an application fee for new educator licensure in order to reduce the processing burden on the Department of Education and allow its licensure office to better serve the needs of Delaware’s educators. The licensure reciprocity agreement with other states and the lack of cost allows many to apply for a Delaware educator license without ever intending to teach in the state. A slight application fee will help discourage those who do not intend to teach in Delaware from filling out an application.
Looking to the future and how to address the legitimate concerns relating to our long-term funding concerns, SJR 4 (Sokola) establishes the Education Funding Improvement Commission. This group, which consists of many Delaware education stakeholders, is tasked with making recommendations by March 31, 2016 on transitioning to a student-focused, weighted school funding system, introducing more funding flexibility into the system, and improving the process by which education funding revenues are collected.
Also of note was HJR 7 (Williams), a bill that re-establishes the Committee to Advance Educator Compensation and Careers, and establishes two sub-committees: the Educator Work Group and the Technical Advisory Group. Per this bill, the committee will continue its work in developing a plan for an alternative compensation structure and career pathway for educators aligned with the parameters set forth in SB 254, including providing educators with a meaningful career pathway, including higher starting salaries and recognition for working with high-needs students, and significant leadership opportunities for career advancement that keeps talented educators in the classroom. This bill passed through the Senate on the night of June 30.
Looking back over the last six months, this session seemed fraught with discontent and frustration. While the disagreements might garner the headlines, it’s important to remember that we all share a common trait: We all want what’s best for Delaware students. The General Assembly will face many more challenges next year, including staggering revenue shortfalls, and the political realities of election season. This work certainly won’t get easier, but I hope that despite the challenges, we can focus on our common threads, and come together to do what’s best for students.