Skeptical lawmakers challenge Delaware education officials

DOVER — Lawmakers grilled Education Department officials Wednesday, questioning the accuracy of enrollment projections, challenging teachers’ annual automatic pay raises and doubting the notion that advanced degrees — which mandate higher salaries — help make teachers better instructors.

In recent years the department has been criticized by General Assembly members on both sides of the aisle as unresponsive and heavy-handed.

With Dr. Steven Godowsky in place as the secretary since October the discussions often have taken a different tone, although lawmakers made clear their disapproval on several topics during a December meeting with department officials.

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Steven Godowsky

On Wednesday legislators expressed more concerns as top education administrators appeared before the Joint Finance Committee.

A large portion of the dialogue centered on enrollment figures, with committee members questioning the discrepancy between predicted and actual growth and the JFC chairman referring to the funding formula as “‘Harry Potter’ calculus.”

“What disturbs me is that that’s something in the neighborhood of a 73 percent error in the estimation,” Chairman Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, said of the projected and final student population figures. “Now, I know you don’t have the hard numbers in the fall when you have to put that number up. But it seems to be that we should be able to come a little bit closer than that in our estimation.”

The state has an increase of 1,075 students this year, a fraction of its total student body. However, the majority of those students have special needs, meaning the increase requires an additional $6.5 million.

In total, 848 of the 1,075 students are in the special education category, which carries a much greater price tag.

Those students come from various places: different states, private schools and new diagnoses. Additionally, because Delaware does not fund special education below fourth grade, students are not fully counted as children with special needs from kindergarten to third grade.

The state’s typical baseline for expected growth, used for more than two decades, has been well short of the actual increases the past three years, officials said.

“We’ve really been in the position of, is this a bubble, is this a one-time or two-time increase in special education enrollment that’s driving that growth?” said department finance director Kim Wheatley.

A University of Delaware study is examining the numbers in an effort to determine if the recent increases represent more of a new normal. Lawmakers and education officials also debated whether the growth is due to more children entering the public school system or simply expanded definitions and diagnoses.

Many parents of kids with learning differences choose to move to Delaware because of the state’s quality special education, Dr. Godowsky said.

“Wouldn’t it be great if they also wanted to choose Delaware for our regular academic programs?” Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, replied.

Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, questioned the rationale behind scheduled pay increases for teachers, noting no other class of

Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton

Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton

state worker receives yearly salary bumps.

She also asked department officials to examine whether teachers with advanced degrees, who automatically make more money, are certifiably better instructors.

She was skeptical of a proposal from Gov. Jack Markell to raise starting salaries, which carries with it a total cost of $4 million.

“They already get 1 percent a year that nobody gets except the police, the other sacred cow,” she said of teachers in a morning budget overview.

The December passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in Congress reduces the federal government’s rule in education, news welcomed by many educators and parents. However, the state remains committed to Common Core standards, despite the disapproval of a sizable portion of the General Assembly.

“I may be wrong, but I think this country got to the pinnacle of its existence through parents, local school board and teacher control,” Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, said. “I believe it started downhill and continued to go downhill when government got involved.”

School safety was also a topic on Wednesday’s agenda. Dr. Godowsky said the department met with the FBI, state Department of Safety and Homeland Security and Delaware State Police Tuesday regarding numerous bomb threats made to schools throughout the state over the past month.

Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, called for lawmakers to pass legislation adding more security measures to schools, including alarms, locks and police officers.

Despite the questions and judgment, there was positive news for the department. Several lawmakers championed proposed testing reductions and thanked Dr. Godowsky for improving communication between the agency and the General Assembly since he took over.

Another source of controversy came from $500,000 recommended for the fund used to help charter schools make capital improvements, a system some lawmakers said unfairly favors charter schools.

Education officials said they did not request it and largely sidestepped the question of its worth.

“If it’s in the governor’s budget we feel it has value,” Dr. Godowsky said.

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