Lawmakers dig into $1.56 billion proposed public education budget

 

DOVER — Lawmakers questioned education and budget officials Thursday over the Department of Education’s proposed spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, seeking more information on the rapid growth of special education enrollment, funding for disadvantaged students and drug prevention education.

Public education makes up more than a third of the state’s $4.27 billion budget, with the Department of Education being allocated $1.48 billion in the current fiscal year. Gov. John Carney’s proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1 would earmark $1.56 billion for the agency, an increase of 5.5 percent over the current year.

Half of that bump comes from mandated personnel costs stemming from a pay raise for state employees approved last year.

Not included in the increase is $30 million recommended by the governor for high-needs students that would be distributed in equal increments over the next three years. That money is not contained in the governor’s recommended budget itself but instead makes up the bulk of a $39.1 million supplemental bill so as to avoid building it into future spending plans in perpetuity.

The Joint Finance Committee, which began hearing from state agencies and other entities last week, spent more than four hours Thursday reviewing the Department of Education’s budget and listening to Delawareans urging lawmakers to invest in education.

Gov. Carney last month announced a plan to provide added funding for students who live in poverty or do not speak English as their native language. Such demographics often need additional assistance, but Delaware is one of the few states that does not provide more money for those students.

The governor’s push would distribute $20 million a year for the next three years to school districts and charter schools, with each one receiving $500 per English language learner and $300 per impoverished pupil.

Students who fall into both groups would generate $800 of funding.

“I think it’s important to understand that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work,” Colonial School District Superintendent Dusty Blakey told the committee as officials explained school districts can use the funding in different ways.

The money can be allocated to hire more personnel and add after-school programs, among other uses, although each spending proposal will have to be approved by the state.

Education officials, community groups and parents will annually evaluate how successful the programs and services implemented by schools are to determine what should and should not continue. The state plans to use the Smarter Balanced standardized test to determine whether more students are proficient in English and math as a result of the spending.

Another area of focus is whether a greater percentage of Delawareans are graduating high school ready for college or the workforce.

According to state data, of the approximately 138,400 public school students in the last school year, there were about 12,900 English language learners and 48,600 low-income students, although that does include some overlap.

Eight of the state’s 19 districts have poverty rates of at least 40 percent, particularly in and around Wilmington, Dover and western Sussex County. In both Capital and Laurel school districts, more students live in poverty than not.

Although lawmakers are generally supportive of the added funding, a few had questions Thursday.

“My concern is that the funding is only for three years, which will incentivize districts to come up with short-term plans when what we need is long-term,” Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Sharpley, said.

Education Secretary Susan Bunting replied that the state hopes to adjust the state’s education funding formula in the future to give more weight to disadvantaged students.

Such a change would represent the biggest shift in how Delaware pays for education in decades.

“It’s a start, I’ll put it that way,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson told JFC in a briefing that preceded the Department of Education’s hearing.

The state is currently facing a lawsuit alleging its system of funding schools is unconstitutional and deprives some pupils of a solid education.

Legislators also broached the subject of enrollment growth, noting a concerning trend is continuing. Although enrollment among regular pupils is up just 762 students this year compared to 2014, the number of special education students has jumped by 3,462 individuals.

Students with disabilities require additional services, meaning it costs the state more to educate them.

To put it a different way, the number of units — in essence, one unit generates funding for one teacher — has increased from about 9,549 to 10,384 over four years. Nearly 808 of the 835 new units are for special education.

The exact cause of the jump is unknown, but officials speculate it’s due to a combination of factors, such as more parents of students with disabilities moving here because of the state’s quality special education programs as well as increased awareness of exceptional needs.

“We need to try to figure out what we’re doing as a society that’s causing this discrepancy,” Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford, said.

As he has in the past, co-chair Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, questioned how much of the increase comes from students who simply lag behind their peers, often because of other factors like poverty, violence or a broken home. Education officials have rejected his categorization of the issue as one created partly because schools are too quick to identify students as special needs.

Somewhat ironically, after years of painting the Department of Education as too big and mandating it eliminate positions, legislators asked why there was no one with the agency to help implement drug prevention efforts in schools.

“It just smacks in the face of, it could be better if we had somebody helping coordinate this, make sure we have evidence-based curriculums,” Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, said.

Some of the students categorized as having special needs simply come from an environment where drug use is rampant, she said.

Mr. Jackson replied that budget officials had to make choices where to spend the state’s limited funds, with co-chair Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, noting legislators may be to blame for urging the Department of Education to downsize.

Also in the governor’s recommended budget is $5.8 million for increased school transportation costs, such as raising bus driver pay, $1 million to create 100 residency programs for new teachers and $500,000 to expand a student loan forgiveness initiative created last year that benefits educators in high-needs schools.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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