Lawmakers push for more spending on education

DOVER — Despite a large budget gap, several budget-writing lawmakers on Monday advanced the idea of spending more on education for English language learners, special-needs children and students from impoverished areas.

The Joint Finance Committee, meeting with top Department of Education officials for the third day, spent about five hours Monday discussing standardized testing and funding for a variety of programs.

The committee, which initially budgeted only one day for the department, did finish the hearing, although Chairwoman Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, noted afterward discussion about education funding is far from over.

Proposals floating around Legislative Hall would place more emphasis on poverty for the school funding formula, provide more support to English language learners and establish special education services from kindergarten to third grade for students with minor learning differences.

About 6.4 percent of students statewide are in the English Language Learner program, while some individual school districts, such as Indian River and Red Clay, have rates of more than 10 percent. Meanwhile, half the students in some districts are defined as low-income.

The total cost for expanded services comes to around $50 million, Rep. George Smith said.

A bill for special education has already been filed, and the others could be forthcoming, even though one major obstacle currently rests in the way.

Based on current spending and projected revenues and expenses, the state is about $350 million short for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Gov. John Carney has yet to present his proposed budget, which is expected to be introduced around the end of March.

Those are far from the only topics weighing on the minds of education policymakers and advocates, however.

One of the most-discussed bills of 2015, a proposal guaranteeing parents the rights to opt their children out of the state’s standardized assessment, Smarter Balanced, was revisited Monday. Although the issue has faded with a new administration — and, critics of former Gov. Jack Markell say, a less heavy-handed Education Department — the passions behind it remain.

While the federal government requires states to have 95 percent of their students participate in the statewide assessments or else federal funding could be revoked, Addressing criticisms raised by several lawmakers, Education Secretary Susan Bunting defended testing as useful.

“Testing the children helps us better teach those children,” she said.

But several lawmakers disagreed. Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, said teachers teach to the Smarter Balanced test, and Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, protested results take too long to be sent to parents and teachers.

“We have tools out there that can help us,” she said. “We just for some reason do not look at the correct tools.”

According to Dr. Bunting, results are supposed to take about three weeks to be relayed to parents and educators, although it took longer in the first year.

Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, spoke with emotion in her voice as she said tests do not define her son, who has cerebral palsy.

According to the department, the state has about 14,000 special needs students, and most of them can take Smarter Balanced with some “accommodations.”

Legislators also spent some time discussing the PSAT, which the state pays about $140,000 for students in select grades to take.

Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, Ramone questioned if it was worth the money, noting that some students do not take it seriously.

“Maybe there might be another way to fund a more productive outcome of the children who want to do it,” such as teachers identifying students or the state using means-testing, he said.

Rep. Debra Heffernan, D-Bellefonte, said the policy helps make it possible for more students to attend college, saying the state avoids “discriminating against anyone” by simply paying for all students to take the PSAT.

JFC members initially planned to discuss school consolidation Monday but the issue was pushed to the side and likely will remain there for the upcoming weeks.

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