Budget Woes Dominate Legislative Session

Author: Melissa Hopkins

The Delaware General Assembly ended its session this year on an interesting quirk and plenty of frustration. After going past the June 30 budget deadline for the first time in decades, the legislative session officially concluded in the early morning hours of July 2nd, after a required extended time window, and a contentious budget negotiation. In years past, education policy issues have dominated the legislature’s agenda, but a sizable deficit and tense budget negotiations resulted in an attention shift.

Delaware’s tough financial outlook, plagued by revenue shortfalls, dominated the activity in the legislature. The negotiations became so difficult that the General Assembly did not adopt a budget during its marathon last day of session, instead coming back on July 2nd to adopt a final budget.

When the FY 2018 budget was signed on July 3rd by Governor John Carney, it included significant implications to education.

  • While the State Board of Education was not eliminated, as was originally proposed in March, all of its funding was cut. This leaves an unclear future for the State Board given the potential loss of its operating staff.
  • Within School District Operations, there was a reduction of $26 million that will be effective on July 1st. District and charters will submit reductions plans to the Department of Education and the Office of Management and Budget by October 31 to define how they will implement these cuts to their operations budget. The reduction in funds will be allocated proportionally to districts and charter schools based on the Division 1 unit count.
  • The Teacher Leader Pilot program—which aimed to support educator career paths and inform instructional practice—was eliminated, resulting in an overall reduction to Teacher Compensation Reform in the amount of $800,000.
  • After facing both proposed cuts and increases throughout session, early childhood initiatives, which includes tiered reimbursements, or higher payments for programs that reach higher levels of quality in the Delaware Stars Quality Rating and Improvement System, were funded at $4.3 million more than FY17. However, it is unclear at this time exactly how resources will be directed based on the following epilogue language: “For FY18, no new program applications will be accepted and all current Delaware Stars for Early Success participants at S Levels 2, 3 and 4 will be held at their current level.”
  • College Access programs—like dual-enrollment sub-grants, PSAT sessions, and College Application Month—were considered for significant reductions. While some scholarship funds were ultimately eliminated, the programs saw only a $100,000 cut once the dust finally settled on the budget.
  • Finally, $1 million has been allocated to provide Opportunity Grants. This funding will provide up to 10 competitive sub-grants to districts and charters for the purpose of providing integrated student services and trauma-informed supports to low-income students or to providing other additional supports to low-income and English language learner students based on the needs of those students during the 2017-18 school year.

Several other items were reduced, including World Language Expansion, Parents as Teachers, Department of Education staffing, and pass-throughs to programs at institutions of higher education.

While the budget took up most of the spotlight, several other education-related bills gained attention.

Multiple bills were introduced to curb high school dropout rates. Rep. Sean Matthews pursued HB23, which requires any student who wishes to drop out before the age of 16 to complete an exit interview, along with their parents and school personnel, to review the disadvantages to not having a high school diploma. Parents would then have to provide written consent. This bill passed overwhelmingly, and was subsequently signed into law by Gov. Carney. Several other dropout prevention bills were introduced this year but did not make it to the governor’s desk. Ideas included raising the minimum age of school attendance (HB17 and HB55) and reducing truancy by requiring a parent conference after a student misses five days of school (HB 24).

School choice was also a key issue.

  • Kim Williams leads the Enrollment Preferences Task Force and is committed to acting on the recommendations outlined in their Report. To address geographic enrollment preferences, Rep. Williams pursued a controversial bill, HS 1 to HB 85, to remove a provision that gives preference to students who reside within a five-mile radius of a charter school. Detractors of this bill cite concerns of discrimination. While the bill would open up more options for students and families, it would not change the enrollment preference for applicants who live in the geographically contiguous part of the school’s district. This means that in-demand schools like Newark Charter School could give preference to enrollees who live in the Newark part of the Christina School District—but would not have to extend the same advantage to applicants who live in the Wilmington section of the district. While Newark Charter School is only one of the schools utilizing the five-mile preference it received most of the attention. This bill passed both the House and the Senate and currently awaits the governor’s signature.
  • As a follow-up, Rep. Williams introduced HB 269, which aligns the timelines, processes, and procedures for choice for school districts, vocational-technical school districts, and charter schools. This bill was introduced late in the session and will be considered in early 2018.

And, a bill addressing new educators and educator candidates came forward. In 2016, Sen. David Sokola sponsored SB 199 which created a one-year “provisional” license for teacher applicants who have not yet met the performance assessment requirement. The bill basically increased the time that an educator is considered to be a “novice,” from a three-year time period to a four-year time period. The intention was to allow additional mentoring supports for Delaware’s early career educators and to enable more high-quality teachers to enter our local workforce through other states and alternative teacher training models. This session, Rep. Williams introduced HS1 for HB143, which aims to remove the provisional license and re-establish the three-tiered licensure system. Some districts claimed the one-year requirement to complete a performance assessment placed a burden on out-of-state applicants and caused difficulty in hiring. Under the new three-tiered system, an initial license provides two years for the licensee to obtain a passing score on an approved performance assessment and eliminates the general knowledge exam. This bill has been signed by the governor.

Not surprisingly, school finance was also a recurring theme.

  • Earl Jaques proposed SCR 39, which will create a task force to study school district consolidation. There are questions about how much money consolidation would really save, but the task force will spend the fall researching possible answers, including whether or not consolidation is feasible and if so, how we might proceed.
  • As taxpayers across the Delaware continue tightening their belts, school districts are finding increasingly harder to pass referendums. In response, Rep. Jaques proposed legislation (HB 213) to allow school districts to raise taxes simply by the rate of inflation without having to seek a referendum. This legislation did not move forward and remains in the House Education Committee in hopes of being worked when the legislature returns in January 2018.

For the third straight year, Rep. John Kowalko pursued an “opt-out” bill. This session, HB 60 would’ve allowed parents to hold their children out of the statewide annual assessment. While the bill was considered in the House Education Committee, it failed to gain the necessary votes to be released to the full House for consideration.

This is only a snapshot of the action in the legislature this past year. Reference this appendix for a full list of education-related bills, and be sure to visit our Legislative Monitor. 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 underway. Scheduled meetings can be found on the Delaware Public Meeting Calendar.

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