Education is Front and Center at Legislative Hall

July 1st, 2016

Category: Early Learning

Exterior of Dover Legislative Building in Delaware

One look at our Legislative Monitor says it all: Education was front and center this year in the Delaware General Assembly.

It was also a tough financial year, one plagued by continued revenue shortfalls. In this space Wednesday, we recapped the proposed budget cuts put forth by the Joint Finance Committee and the implications on Delaware teachers and students. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

But the news wasn’t all bad. On the early childhood education front, around $9.4 million will go to support programs and initiatives spurred by the federal Early Learning Challenge Grant awarded to Delaware in 2011. While still short of Governor Jack Markell’s recommended $11.4 million, the funds will help pay for tiered reimbursement and onsite support and assessment of providers in the Stars program, professional development activities for practitioners in early care and education, early childhood mental health consultation, developmental screenings and surveys, community readiness teams, and more. Money was also set aside for an inclusive teaching model at the Laboratory Preschool at the University of Delaware.

Proposed salary increases for teachers found their way to the cutting room floor, but the legislature added $1 million to help support educators, including stipends for those who obtain National Board Certification (restoring a program that was formerly funded), and funding to pilot teacher-leadership roles, which will allow teachers to receive additional compensation while continuing to stay in the classroom of several districts and charters starting this fall.

The troubling financial picture grabbed most of the headlines, but there were many other hot-topic issues emanating from Dover this session.

Standardized assessments remained hotly contested, and in January, a veto override attempt of HB 50—a bill that would allow parents to “opt out” of the Smarter Balanced Assessment—failed to gain traction. The bill passed through both chambers last session, but Gov. Markell vetoed it last July, saying the legislation “would undermine the only objective tool we have to understand whether our children are learning and our schools are improving.”

This session gave rise to two new task forces: one focused on financial literacy education (HJR 4) and another, the Statewide Afterschool Initiative Learning Task Force (HR 39), to study and make recommendations related to afterschool programs.

DPAS II, Delaware’s statewide educator evaluation system, could also see some changes soon. The DPAS II Advisory Subcommittee was established last year to review and make recommendations for changes to the current system. The resulting legislation, HB 399 w/ HA 1, SA 1, and SA 2, establishes that all components of the system are weighted equally (these include instruction, professional responsibility, and student achievement)—and a pilot in three local education agencies to evaluate the pilot’s effectiveness, beginning this fall for two years. The amendments clarify the roles of administrators and school leaders in setting goals for their faculty, while also requiring a survey of parents, and students, and ed professionals to be incorporated into feedback.

SB 51, which passed in 2013, required that all teacher candidates pass a performance assessment before graduating from a teacher preparation program and enter the classroom. SB 199 creates a one-year provisional license for applicants who have not completed the performance assessment requirement, such as those who are from out-of-state and are prepared by alternative routes programs. With this policy, which will take effect next year, we join several other states in adopting nationally standardized assessments to help ensure new teachers enter the classroom ready.

Research tells us that students’ health can be linked to their academic achievement, as noted in Student Success 2025. With that in mind, HB 234 requires all public high schools, including vocational-technical schools (but not including charter schools), to have a school-based health center. The act requires the state to funds start-up costs for each center (at the three high schools that do not currently have one) as well the operational costs for at least one school per fiscal year until all public high schools have a health center. Tobacco settlement funds were used to financially support this effort this year.

SB 180 ensures that each child with a disability has been assigned an educational decision-maker by age 18.

Over the course of the legislative session, multiple bills were drafted in attempt to strengthen the audit process for charter schools, and the role of the State Auditor’s Office in their finances.  After much discussion, HB 435, which creates a clear charter school audit process, represents a compromise between Representative Kim Williams, Senator David Sokola, the Delaware Charter Schools Network, and the State Auditor’s Office. The provision creates clear requirements and a process for the audits of charter schools, while allowing schools to contract directly with independent auditors for services. It’s also a win for charter schools and taxpayers alike, because it offers transparency and oversight of school finances, while allowing charter schools to select their own auditors and negotiate rates – resulting in taxpayer savings.

Finally, the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission (WEIC), which was created last year through code and charged with developing a transition, resource, and implementation plan for reorganizing school districts in the City of Wilmington, introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at redistricting and providing necessary financial backing to support weighted unit funding for impacted districts.

Ultimately, SJR 17 affirms the decision of the State Board of Education to approve WEIC’s plan and supports the continued work of the commission with an eye toward implementation. It should be noted that redistricting is conditional on allocation of funding. Additionally, SB 300 with HA 1 authorizes the State Board to proceed with the redistricting, but WEIC intends to suspend the redistricting plan pending necessary and sufficient funding. The bill does not provide for any revenue or spending measure proposed by WEIC. The bill does provide transition funds in the amount of $200,000 to fund continued analysis.

These issues were only the tip of the iceberg in a very busy legislative session—which concluded at 5 a.m. Friday morning. As always, you can reference our Legislative Monitor for a full list of education-related bills. We also encourage you to join the conversation and become an advocate in Delaware public education. Attend a meeting of one of the many education-related committees mentioned above, or search for others in the Delaware Public Meeting Calendar.

Melissa Hopkins