DOVER — House Education Committee members voted Wednesday to release for floor debate legislation that would allow parents to opt their children out of standardized testing in schools.
Following hours of sometimes contentious arguments among lawmakers and testimony from education officials and parents, the committee voted to release the bill after a motion to table it failed. The motion passed with no margin, as the minimum eight members voted for it.
As the committee chairman announced the vote audience members broke out into applause and cheers.
House Bill 50 would implement “a system for a parent or guardian to opt out of the annual assessment currently known as the Smarter Balance assessment,” according to Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, the bill’s main sponsor.
The bill would require schools and districts to inform parents of their right to opt out, prevent students who do so from being punished in any way, mandate the state keep a listing of all students who opt out and require schools to create alternative activities for those who do so.
The highly polarizing issue of opt-out has gained prominence in recent years. Parents seeking to protect their children from what they see as redundant, unneeded and stress-inducing tests have pushed for exemptions.
Administrators in the Department of Education have pushed back, arguing they use the tests to measure students and teachers.
Delaware’s current standardized test is the Smarter Balanced assessment, used by 21 states. Delaware implemented it this year. Some districts have finished the testing, others have not yet done so.
Some federal funding is tied to participation rates and if more than 5 percent of students opt out the state could lose tens of millions.
Discussion Wednesday was heated at times, with Rep. Kowalko growing animated on several occasions as he defended the bill. Chairman Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, and he attempted several times to talk over each other, their tones flirting with incivility.
Though the state Education Department doesn’t recognize parents’ right to opt out, there is little it can do. Some parents throughout the state have already chosen to take their children out of tests.
The Capital School Board approved a resolution in October clarifying its policy to allow parents to opt their children out.
Rep. Kowalko, who was booted from the Education Committee before this session began, repeatedly stated his belief in the “already constitutionally guaranteed right of a parent to do what’s in the best interest of their child.”
He’s been a vocal critic of Gov. Jack Markell and the Education Department. On Wednesday he publicly took the agency to task.
During the hearing, Rep. Kowalko butted heads with several members of the committee on multiple occasions, his voice rising as he urged lawmakers to support the bill.
While legislators like Reps. Kowalko and Kimberly Williams, D-Newport, were behind the proposal, others expressed concerns.
A skeptical Rep. Jaques sharply questioned Rep. Kowalko, noting Delaware’s colleges have backed Smarter Balanced. Rep. Jaques said the bill is too broad, something his counterpart vehemently denied.
Rep. Stephanie Bolden, D-Wilmington, claimed the bill could “disenfranchise” inner-city parents who do not have the resources to stay informed and thus would not receive the benefits of the opt-out movement.
Both Reps. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, and Rep. Edward Osienski, D-Newark, said they have doubts about the bill. Rep. Lynn also questioned the constitutionality of the bill. He cited the federal case Brown v. Hot Sexy and Safer Productions Inc. (a name that drew chuckles), which found that parents lack a “fundamental constitutional right to dictate the curriculum at the public school to which they have chosen to send their children.”
Despite their worries, both Reps. Lynn and Osienski said they believed the bill should be settled on House floor by vote from all members of the body.
Rep. Kowalko said he had been assured by the House attorney the bill does not violate any provisions.
Several lawmakers wondered if passing the bill could lead to opening the floodgates, which they fear would result in the federal government withholding money. According to Secretary of Education Mark Murphy, up to $90 million could be kept from the state government if it fails to track student results.
“Measuring the progress of our children, that our children make in school, is essential,” he said. “It’s essential to providing our teachers, our parents, our taxpayers and our leaders throughout the state with honest, objective information about how our children are doing, not just in their classrooms or in their schools but also relative to how they’re doing to their peers across the state and across the country.
“These assessment results are the only way that we truly know at consistent levels how our students, particularly our students with the greatest needs and challenges, are doing.”
Rep. Kowalko said he had heard of parents being prevented from opting their children out, leading to his desire to “codify” the existing laws.
Rep. Michael Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, questioned if the bill is intended as a final answer to what he sees as unnecessary assessments.
“Should we be spending our energy and our time in modifying, adjusting or eliminating the state testing that we’ve been tiptoeing around?” he asked.
In response, Rep. Kowalko noted House Bill 50 is not intended as the ultimate solution but just as a step toward eliminating some standardized tests.
As afternoon passed into evening, debate between lawmakers shifted into public comments.
Twenty-seven members of the public, most of them parents or teachers opposed to Smarter Balanced, testified. They told stories about students who were brought to tears because of stress over standardized tests. One speaker referencing a “test and punish environment,” and another said Delawareans have “had enough.”
Parents, several people mentioned, know their children best and thus should have the right to choose.
Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association (the teachers’ union), spoke of her support for the bill. So did Red Clay teacher Mike Matthews.
Parents have been ignored for years, he said.
“Four of my 15 students had severe emotional breakdowns during this test,” Mr. Matthews said of a standardized test several years ago.
“What did I do? I did what was in the best interest of my students and told them to press buttons and get done the test. Forget my evaluation.”