“The Education GA” Rides Again: Busy Legislative Session Focuses on Early Learning, Literacy, and Teacher Supports
When the clock struck midnight last week on another Delaware General Assembly legislative session, another host of education-related bills and budget implications stood awaiting the signature of Governor John Carney.
This legislature in particular—with several former and current educators, advocates, and school board members among its ranks—continued its focus on supporting students, families, teachers and schools. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to weaken its grip, lawmakers dug in to address the challenges it wrought, from a full-blown child care crisis, a teacher shortage, strained mental health, and literacy concerns.
Facing a budget surplus, buttressed in part thanks to federal pandemic-relief funding, the state pursued several key spending measures. And as violent incidences at schools across the country sparked outrage, debate, and heartache—Delaware legislators considered bills focused on school safety and student wellness.
[Read: Senate Passes Budget Bills Topping $5 Billion – Town Square Delaware]
Gov. Carney and his administration also continued to focus on the City of Wilmington. A cascade of policy and budget implications stemmed from the Redding Consortium, as momentum continued to build for the Wilmington Learning Collaborative.
Advocates and Families Push Lawmakers for Historic Investments in Early Child Care and Reinforcements for Workers
Delaware lawmakers approved a $20.07 million increase to Delaware’s Purchase of Care program in Fiscal Year 2023—a substantial boost in funding. This addition will increase the rates paid to child care providers by 15 percent, including a $1.1 million “door opener” to fund enrollment growth. That means as more families enroll in POC, the state budget will grow to ensure they are served. These funds will be ongoing, in the operating budget, rather than contingent or one-time.
Advocates including Rodel, First State Pre-K and deaeyc (more below) worked with legislators to catalyze the largest increase in decades—in concert with parents, educators, and voters who have been calling on the state to address the growing crisis for families, employers, and long-term state needs. Among many lawmakers who considered early childhood education a priority, Sen. Laura Sturgeon emerged as a key champion.
The increase indicates continued care for the 12,000 families currently enrolled in POC. For providers who accept POC, this funding will allow them to keep up with rising minimum wage, and offer additional slots to families, prioritizing those with infants. The investment will allow providers to pay better salaries to employees, helping to reduce turnover and provide stability for children and families. It could also enable more providers to accept POC families. SR 34, led by Senator Kyle Evans Gay, outlines reporting requirements on the use of funds and potential increases to rates and services in the future.
Advocacy was informed by community input/what we hear from the field:
Currently very few children with special needs are served through Purchase of Care, since the state has limited funds and employs an outdated process to cover additional costs for providers to serve them. The grant-in-aid bill (SB 252) directs the Department of Health and Social Services to update the way special needs children and funded through Purchase of Care, aligning regulations with current special education law, allowing providers and families to access this funding, and recommending updates to the rates and process in the future.
Bolstering the Workforce: For longtime advocates and educators, the increase capped off a year of recognition for the difficult and important work of the child care industry. Likewise, HS 1 for HB 377 will create a “comprehensive support program for early childhood professionals including those employed by a public school.” These include scholarships and wage supplements tethered to earning credentials and degrees. Other supports for early educators include tutoring, counseling, coaching, substitute coverage, and community-based delivery of training, such as on-site at a child care center to reduce demands on time and transportation. Rodel and deaeyc led the development of this bill.
Pre-K: A $3.7 million chunk of funding allocated to the Redding Consortium in next year’s budget is expected to support additional pre-K slots in Wilmington. Additional statewide pre-K investments are expected next year, per the conditions of the Delawareans for Educational Opportunity v Carney lawsuit settlement. As directed by the budget epilogue, state funded preschool standards will increase in coming years to align with research that shows that full day, high-quality programming with certified teachers produces the best outcomes. And, the state will conduct an assessment of capacity statewide and make recommendations on universal pre-k for three- and four-year-olds—and long-term vision for Rodel and allies.
Supporting Families with Young Children: SS 1 for SB 1 (the Healthy Delaware Families Act) creates a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program and is supported by over $20 million in the budget. Delaware employees can access up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave through the state’s paid leave trust fund. Paid family medical leave supports healthy child development and family wellbeing as well as a benefit to the early childhood education workforce. We wrote about the myriad benefits of paid family medical leave in 2021 in reference to an earlier version of this bill. The state also passed HB 234, which will cover women for one year postpartum through Medicaid, an evidence-based strategy to improve maternal and infant health.
Early Literacy Emerges as Priority Issue
Early literacy remained a hot topic across Delaware this year, as the state has dropped to 37th in national rankings of reading scores. In response, Gov. Carney released the Delaware Literacy Plan in 2019 and allocated ongoing state resources to support teacher training, classroom materials, and summer learning supports, and evidence-backed literacy approaches.
Evidence-Backed Approaches. SS1 for Senate Bill 4 provides standards for the materials educators use to know the needs of their students and to teach them how to decode words, sound out multisyllabic words, learn vowel teams and provide all the important foundations of how the human brain learns to read. It requires that districts and charters provide time for educators to learn these materials, and it creates reporting requirements.
Universal Tools and Practices. House Bill 304 establishes standards for universal screening tools and practices, ensuring that students are screened for reading deficiencies, including dyslexia, three times during the school year in grades K-3, and establishes reporting requirements.
Sen. Sturgeon and Rep. Kimberly Williams served as lead champions on these issues, with support from Rodel, Reading Assist, Decoding Dyslexia, reading specialists and the Wilmington Library, which hosted a Literacy Summit in March.
Funding Equity in K-12 Advances
The governor and General Assembly implemented the commitments outlined in the 2020 lawsuit settlement, including funding for students from low-income families, with special needs in K-3, and who are multi-language learners; for mental health in schools; for teacher recruitment and retention ($4 million); for an Ombudsman; and for a research-driven assessment of Delaware’s school funding system ($1 million).
The General Assembly also included $1 million in the budget for mid-year growth in student enrollment, which will be allocated based on district growth and need. This policy is a step toward greater equity to account for all children—including those who move into Delaware public schools after the September 30 unit count—and adequacy for districts who are hiring additional educators and need additional supplies to serve all students. In Appoquinimink School District alone, enrollment grew by 670 from the beginning to middle of the year. Many states “count” and fund students through the average daily membership or enrollment in a school district, which is even more equitable and inclusive.
The supplemental budget also includes $1 million to fund the Education Funding Assessment, for which a request for proposals was issued in February. This assessment, due January 2024, will look at the current system and compare it to other states’ systems—and make recommendations “for future improvements that may result in improved funding equities statewide, with a focus on improving outcomes for all students.”[Read: “What’s New with Delaware’s Education Funding System?”]
Teacher Burnout and Shortages Prompt Response
Teacher shortages in Delaware are nothing new. And residual stress and struggles from the pandemic hung through most of the school year. Masks were part of daily life through March, while staff shortages across education positions and burnout reared their heads.
Grow Your Own. Rodel worked with educators, DDOE and local education agencies (LEAs) to support “Grow Your Own” initiatives that attract candidates from within the school community. HB 430 creates a statewide GYO program to improve recruitment, retention, and diversity of educations in Delaware public schools.
This bill aligns with goals of the settlement of Delawareans for Educational Opportunity v Carney, the high-stakes education funding lawsuit that settled in 2020, when the state committed to adding $4 million to the budget beginning in Fiscal Year 2023 “to enhance recruitment and retention in high-needs schools.”
Substitute Help. The state budget allocated $2 million for full time substitutes in high-need schools, and HB 315 with HA 2 creates a pathway to teaching certification for substitutes who meet requirements for emergency certification. Professionalizing substitute teachers is a strong opportunity to support this ready-made pipeline for the profession—the opportunity to train and certify substitutes continues past this year’s efforts: to expand these positions and funding, to create high-quality professional learning for substitutes, and to establish strong certification regulations.
Laying the Groundwork for Better Salaries. The Delaware State Education Association helped champion SB 100, a bill that aims to ensure teacher compensation in Delaware is competitive with other states and help address the teacher shortage. Delaware currently ranks behind all of our neighboring states in both starting salaries and average salaries for teachers—with Maryland committing to starting salaries of $60,000 in the coming years (28 percent higher than Delaware’s). The bill requires the committee to develop a set of recommendations to establish a new compensation structure for educators.
In Wake of a Pandemic, Renewed Focus on Mental Health, School Safety, and Digital Learning
In partnership with NAMI Delaware and dozens of other organizations, Rodel signed onto support letters urging legislators to take action on a suite of bills related to supporting mental health in schools:
- HB 300 adds a mental health budget “unit” or counselor position in middle schools, building on last year’s HB 100, which saw similar investments in elementary schools.
- HB 301 requires DDOE to create a K-12 mental health program. Delaware might look to New York, which is considered model for the resources it makes available to educators.
- HB 303 requires insurance companies to cover annual behavioral well checks and well visits for children and is supported with $500,000 in one-time funds to set up the associated information systems and billing rules.
- HB 388 guides increased investments—up to $10 million this year—for school safety and security beyond School Resource Officers and physical buildings, including training and programming.
The pivot to digital learning in March 2020 placed a spotlight on students’ knowledge of navigating online resources. Developed with the Department of Education digital learning experts and educators—and supported by Rodel and the Rodel Teacher Network—SB 195 with SA 1 requires the creation of standards for media literacy for students K-12. The standards will provide guidance on teaching Delaware students how to consume and use social media and other digital media sources and address appropriate, responsible, and healthy online behavior.
As the state’s postsecondary landscape continues to evolve, HB 480 works to maximizes the use of scholarship funds in several ways: by focusing on high-demand occupations; supporting as many students as possible with the funds available; and by providing authority to DOE Office of Higher Education to increase transparency. With fewer students taking on state loans, even with the promise of forgiveness, DOE will have the flexibility to repay loans and provide scholarships instead. The bill also provides incentives for in-demand mental health professionals and counselors in schools, which have been a need and are now funded through HB 100 and 300, which fund additional counselors in elementary and middle schools. This creates a process to align funding with in-demand occupations based on the Delaware labor market, which has not been done in over 10 years. The bill will help reduce debt and burden on applicants as Delaware continues its focus on recruiting and retaining its workforce.
Other Bills that Passed
During this session, lawmakers passed an array of bills signaling positive outlooks for kids, teachers, families, and schools. These include:
- HB 441 removes unnecessary barriers to entry for the teaching profession while maintaining requirements for pedagogical and content knowledge, as well as practical experience.
- SB 313 codifies the three-year window for teachers pursuing Alternative Routes to Certification (such as those with a degree in something other than teaching) to achieve certification.
- HS1 for HB 291 adds the Delaware Teacher Growth and Support System into the DPAS educator evaluation system, placing an emphasis on building a culture of professionalism and learning within every school.
- Health and Wellness
- SS1 to SB 270 establishes clean air and good repair standards for public schools, requires routine air quality monitoring, requirements and contractor approval protocol to ensure schools are clean and safe for students and educators. The companion SB 293 with SA 1 will make the formula for minor capital improvements more equitable based on a district’s ability to contribute from their local property taxes—so that improvements to health and safety can be made.
- Redding Consortium
- HB 436 extends the due date for the Redding Consortium’s report and recommendations, and extends the deadline for recommendations to be implemented to any time after January of 2025.
- HB 464 – establishes the Equity Ombudsman program which will address equity issues involving both systemic areas and for individual students (hasn’t passed yet – but is required by lawsuit)
- The budget bill (SB 250) and Grant-in-Aid bill (SB 252) allocate resources based on the recommendations of the Consortium, in addition to the pre-k investments listed above, funds were allocated for the Delaware Wraparound Services Initiative, which supports extended learning and health services in three elementary schools.
- Supporting Pregnant Women and New Mothers: Melissa Minor-Brown introduced the “Momnibus” package of bills, seven bills (HB 340-346) in support of improving health for pregnant women and new mothers, with a focus on racial equity. The bills focused on improving support and outcomes for mothers at birth—with a focus on Black mothers, who are three times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts. One bill, for example, asks DHSS to plan to include doulas in Medicaid: Doula care has been shown to reduce birth complications and reduce costs for Medicaid programs. This evidence has led a growing number of states to expand access in Medicaid. As Medicaid pays for at least 43 percent of births each year, there is tremendous potential for improved outcomes for mothers and babies.
- Higher Education: HB 481 provides protections for students against for-profit institutions and provides more oversight and control of for-profit institutions and higher fines for any offenses committed by IHEs.
Bills that Didn’t Pass
While these bills didn’t pass this session, the issues are likely to resurface in future sessions and likely to positively impact many Delaware children, students, and educators.
- HB 252 with HA 1 would implement rolling property reassessment every five years to ensure that property taxes (from which school taxes are determined) are up to date and accurate.
- HB 410 would have created a tax credit for early educators to offset their low wages. This is a strategy that has worked in other states, and is something Delaware may consider in the future.
- HS 1 for HB 144 would have would have reconfigured state code to make pre-K experiences more equitable and high quality by decreasing the “unit” ratio of children: adults.
- HB 317 would have provided medical coverage for all Delaware children, including undocumented children.