Commentary: Equity, education take center stage during legislative session

By Paul Herdman
Posted 7/27/21

In the wake of a national reckoning with racial and social justice, a challenging year battling the impact of COVID-19 and the election of new (largely progressive) members to our state legislature, …

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Commentary: Equity, education take center stage during legislative session

Posted

In the wake of a national reckoning with racial and social justice, a challenging year battling the impact of COVID-19 and the election of new (largely progressive) members to our state legislature, all eyes were on the first half of the 151st General Assembly.

Since kicking off last January, the legislature, which officially ended its first half of its two-year session July 1, positioned equity at the center of its priorities. Dubbed the “education session,” this legislative period was packed with bills on all areas of education policy. In partnership with the  Vision Coalition of Delaware, the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee, the Education Equity Delaware coalition, Delaware Readiness Teams and First State Pre-K, Rodel focused on many key education issues, such as early learning, funding equity and teacher preparation. The Redding Consortium for Educational Equity helped drive a handful of policy initiatives with equity at the core, while the Delaware Association for the Education of Young Children (deaeyc) played a pivotal role in child care discussions.

The list below is intended to provide a snapshot of those bills introduced this session. It is our take on the key headlines and educational wins, as well as bills we may see again in January. It is not intended to be all-inclusive. For more detail on education bills considered this session, visit our legislative monitor.

Bills that didn’t pass by June 30, 2021, will carry on to the next half of session starting January 2022.

  1. Delaware finally on a path for fair funding system: Legislators demand more than lawsuit settlement

Requirements from settlement become law: The legislature passed Senate Bill 56, which includes required investments outlined in the school funding lawsuit settlement from last fall. Sponsored by Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Woodbrook, the law codifies and increases the state’s investment in the Opportunity Fund, providing schools with more money for English learners and low-income students. The legislature also passed a second bill aligned with the funding lawsuit: House Bill 86. Sponsored by Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, this bill creates a funding unit for students in grades K-3 who are eligible to receive special-education services. Advocates like the Redding Consortium and Education Equity Delaware praised the settlement but argue more must be done to address the inequitable funding system.

 

Commitment to do more on funding equity: Driven by advocates like Education Equity Delaware, the legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution 24, signaling its commitment to address the education funding system. Sponsored by Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, D-Wilmington, and Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, the resolution calls for action from the legislature and mandates that the Department of Education (DDOE) provide data this fall on the systemic inequities in the current funding system to inform future legislation.

 

Property reassessment: As part of the county track of the funding lawsuit, all three counties have committed to reassessing property values, which contribute to school resources but have not been updated in decades. Sponsored by Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, House Bill 170 allows counties to use certain funds related to assessments and reassessment.

 

Counting students: Rep. Chukwuocha introduced a bill that would allow districts to count students twice a year instead of once. This small but crucial step helps the state calculate its distribution of resources to districts and charter schools. Equity advocates consider it a step in the right direction toward modernizing Delaware’s underlying funding system. This bill will continue on to next session.

  1. Delawareans left wanting more as legislature, fails to increase investments in child care

Ultimately, advocates were left wanting more when it came to the fiscal year 2022 budget. They sought a $60 million investment that would sustain the child care industry. Instead, Gov. Carney and the Joint Finance Committee committed no increase in state funding, instead increasing the rate of reimbursement within the current budget and authorizing the state to find $5 million in one-time contingency funds — 8% of what was requested — to be used only if needed. The fight to increase state investments in Purchase of Care, the state subsidy that supports low-income families’ child care tuition, will continue on — especially for partners like deaeyc, First State Pre-K and Delaware Readiness Teams. And federal stimulus funding will help with a temporary patchwork of one-time grants. Underinvestment has caused providers to limit their enrollment, causing families to scramble for care or to find themselves on long waitlists.

More transparency into Purchase of Care: Sponsored by Sen. Kyle Evans Gay, D-Talleyville, Senate Resolution 21 requires the Department of Health and Social Services to provide data reports on Purchase of Care, which will help inform early child care and education policy.

  1. First increase in state-funded pre-K: 200 more children to gain access

At least 200 children and their families will soon have access to state-supported pre-K, thanks to Delaware’s first increase in that area. The $2.3 million — catalyzed by the education funding lawsuit and spurred on by the Redding Consortium and longtime advocates like First State Pre-K — marks a 37% increase in funding and a 25% increase in children served. Only about 5% of eligible children benefit from state funded pre-K, ranking Delaware low among states, so this increase is modest. However, the General Assembly plans to phase in additional appropriated funding in subsequent years to annualize and expand this program.

  1. Continued support for educators: Legislators focus on recruitment, retention and diversity

 

Investment in teacher residencies: A bill, sponsored by Rep. Williams, codifies teacher residency programs in Delaware. Supported by Rodel, the bill sustains the $1 million investment for residency programs outlined in our annual state budget and signals the state’s continued investment in this “gold standard” preparation model.

 

Embedding the science of reading in teacher prep programs: Sen. Sturgeon sponsored a bill that helps officially incorporate the science of reading into Delaware schools by adopting requirements for teacher preparation programs. While it was not fully funded, the bill passed and will build on work underway to boost student literacy rates statewide.

A pandemic-created moratorium on evaluations: The legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 42 early this session, acknowledging the pandemic’s impact on education. Introduced by Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, the act suspended the educator-evaluation system during the 2020-21 school year and replaced it with an observation cycle to provide coaching and support for remote and hybrid learning.

 

Expansion of eligibility for educator loan program: Senate Bill 99, introduced by Sen. Marie Pinkney, D-Bear, would make minority educators eligible for the High Needs Educator Student Loan Payment Program and will continue on to next session.

State takes aim at teacher shortage, removes bar to entry: House Bill 207, introduced by Rep. Williams, eliminates the performance assessment required for teacher licensure — an attempt to address Delaware’s teacher shortage. Some of our neighboring states, like Pennsylvania, do not require this assessment, and concerns about teacher candidates leaving the state or pursuing another career drove these efforts. Rodel would like to see a thoughtful review of the recently released teacher recruitment and training data to discern the drivers of the teacher shortage. We believe we can have a robust and diverse teacher talent pipeline and still maintain a high bar. And as a part of that solution, it is encouraging that local educator prep programs will maintain the performance assessment as a part of their programs.

Pay increases for education employees: The final budget includes a 1% increase in pay for Delaware’s educators and administrators starting July 1, 2021. The budget also includes a pay increase for support professionals, one-time payments for additional groups and pension increases.

Investments in Teacher Academies: Proposed and driven by the Redding Consortium, the legislature included funds in the state budget for existing Teacher Academy programs for high school students interested in becoming teachers. As Delaware and the nation seek solutions to a teacher shortage and diversity challenges, many local partners see Teacher Academies as a major opportunity. The investment totals around $100,000 and will be used for expanded outreach and other purposes to build up these programs.

  1. Career pathways and postsecondary success gain key investments

 

State invests in work-based learning and pathways: Legislators committed $1.25 million in the state’s budget to sustain the Office of Work-Based Learning and Delaware Pathways. Of the total, $1 million is earmarked for Delaware Technical Community College, while $250,000 will go to the Delaware Department of Education for continued investment and expansion of pathways programs like those in health care and construction. Rodel and advocates like the Vision Coalition and DBREC celebrated this investment as it demonstrates the state’s commitment to immersive opportunities and pathways for Delaware students.

A boom in scholarship proposals for postsecondary success: Many new bills focused on making it more affordable to access postsecondary opportunities. While some bills built on scholarship programs already in place (like Student Excellence Equals Degree or SEED and Inspire), others introduced new scholarships (like the Focus on Alternative Skills Training Program or FAST and Elevate Delaware). New funding allocated to these initiatives totaled $6.8 million for fiscal year 2022. Additional bills include the establishment of a fund for housing-insecure undergraduate students and tuition waivers for children in the state’s foster care system, provided by Delaware colleges and universities. Thanks to investments from the state, as well as institutes of higher education, these programs will serve thousands more students.

  1. In wake of pandemic, lawmakers prioritize streamlined governance, holistic development and wraparound services for children and families

Expansion of developmental screenings: Spearheaded by Delaware Readiness Teams and supported by Rodel, the legislature approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Williams that requires all licensed child care facilities to provide developmental screenings — a tool used to snapshot a child’s abilities in basic skills, identify any potential developmental delays and connect families to resources and interventions early on in a child’s development. This law takes effect July 2023. Simultaneously, the Redding Consortium’s initiative for developmental screenings was funded in the budget year to strengthen early intervention for children.

 

Assessing solutions for expanding home-visiting: Supported by Rodel and in tandem with the Delaware Early Childhood Council (DECC), Sen. Gay sponsored a resolution that calls for the creation of an annual report on home-visiting programs. The report must include a summary of current practices, challenges and recommendations to expand the reach of home-visiting statewide. The first report will be available this December.

 

Calls for investments in the early-learning workforce: A resolution sponsored by Sen. Gay looks to improve compensation for the early-learning workforce by directing DDOE and the DECC to create a state compensation scale by this December. The resolution, backed by Rodel, is expected to showcase a scale that addresses all child care educators and include employment experience and common certifications.

 

On a path for paid family medical leave: Sen. Sarah McBride, D-Wilmington, sponsored a bill creating a 12-week paid family medical leave insurance program, a policy that will positively impact families and child development. Driven by the Delaware Cares Coalition for Paid Leave, this policy will ensure all workers have access to paid family and medical leave through their employers, building on the previously established state employee benefit. The legislature set aside $10 million in the bond bill for the program’s startup costs, and the legislature will revisit the bill when it reconvenes in 2022. We look forward to working with lawmakers and stakeholders to establish the program and support enrollment of families.

 

Expanding reach of school-based wellness centers: House Bill 129, introduced by Rep. Williams, builds on the state’s existing network of school-based health centers by requiring them in all high-needs elementary schools. This bill will continue on to next session. Startup funding for one elementary wellness center was allocated in the bond bill.

Mental health unit for Delaware schools: Sponsored by Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, House Bill 100 aims to fund a full-time mental health professional in elementary schools. Funding is provided in the budget to help recruit for this profession, which faced shortages even before the pandemic.

Streamlining regulations for all providers: The legislature passed a resolution, introduced by Sen. Gay, that directs DDOE to establish uniformity in regulations and licensing across early child care providers and programs in Delaware.

 

Funding for pre-K basic special-education services: Introduced by Rep. Williams, legislation to decrease the unit ratio for pre-K children eligible for basic special-education services was introduced and will continue on to next session.

A seamless transition of services for young children: Senate Bill 136, sponsored by Sen. Sturgeon, transfers responsibility for early-intervention services for children ages birth to 3 to the DDOE. This move ensures that intervention programs for children from birth through age 5 all live under the DDOE for a more seamless transition of services for young children and their families. The bill was supported by DECC, Rodel and many other advocates in the early-learning and disability communities.

Policies ensuring the health and safety of children: The legislature passed Senate Bill 169, sponsored by Sen. Gay. This legislation expands the definition of child care and ensures health and safety regulations are implemented to protect all children regardless of child care setting.

  1. Student-centered, equity-focused policies take center stage

Delaware becomes one of the first states to implement an online school registration system: Sponsored by Sen. Lockman, and supported by advocates like Rodel and Delaware Readiness Teams, the bill creates a common registration system to simplify the process for families and students, while enabling schools to plan in advance of the school year and integrate data systems.

We look forward to working with DDOE, Delaware Readiness Teams and local education agencies, as the system is tested and implemented to ensure it is integrated and reduce burden on families.

The Redding Consortium also made headlines, as the group’s proposed recommendations made it into the state’s budget. The state funded around $10 million for the consortium’s equity-driven initiatives. Around $3 million of the investment will become permanent items, while the remainder will be one-time funds to jump-start some of the consortium’s initiatives (both in the city of Wilmington and statewide).

Bills on student-focused topics also passed this session. Many of these bills were supported by student advocates who provided moving testimonies during legislative hearings. Some of the bills include:

Others, like a bill that would direct DDOE to create digital media literacy standards and materials, were introduced but did not move this session.

To see the full list of bills, please visit our legislative monitor.

Paul Herdman is president and CEO of Rodel, a nonprofit organization that partners with Delawareans and educational innovators from around the world to transform public education in the First State..  He authored this piece with the full Rodel team.