Bill would raise the bar for Education chief nominees

DOVER — Around Legislative Hall, it’s no secret a host of lawmakers are skeptical of certain education-related policies put forth by Gov. Jack Markell and Secretary of Education Mark Murphy.

The Wilmington priority schools plan and changes in standardized testing have received criticism from both sides of the aisle. It’s boiled over in the form of two bipartisan bills that appear to be aimed at curbing the power of the Department of Education.

House Bill 50, which would allow parents to opt their children out of the Smarter Balanced assessment, was passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives last week.

The other bill, Senate Bill 72, raises the qualifications for the secretary of Education. Although the main sponsor said the proposal is not connected to the current secretary’s performance, the bill would increase restrictions on who can be nominated, and it shares six co-sponsors with the opt-out bill.

Currently, the head of the Department of Education is the only Cabinet position with a prerequisite.

To be appointed, an individual must have spent at least five years working in education, with time as an administrator and as a teacher. The bill would require all future nominees have at least 10 years’ experience, with a minimum of six years spent working in the classroom and two years working in management.

“Making sure that he or she has more classroom experience and administrative experience is an important part of showing how seriously we take the profession of education,” said sponsor Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark.

Secretary of Education Mark Murphy

Secretary of Education Mark Murphy

According to the Department of Education, Mr. Murphy spent six years as an administrator and three as a teacher.

Despite the sometimes loud criticism from state lawmakers directed at Mr. Murphy, Sen. Townsend insisted the bill is not a response to the executive branch’s educational policies.

“Point being at the very least make sure the nominee has enough years of classroom and administrative experience for these professionals in the system, the educators and administrators who are professionals, and we say they’re professionals, for them to feel more comfortable and confident that the person at the helm has got the experience,” he said.

With 20 lawmakers backing the bill, Sen. Townsend believes it will pass.

However, the governor’s office appears skeptical of the changes the proposal would bring.

“In the case of the secretary of Education or any Cabinet position, there is a thorough screening and vetting done by the governor and then by the Senate in the nomination and confirmation process to ensure a candidate is well-qualified,” said Kelly Bachman, a spokeswoman for Gov. Markell. “While it makes sense to require some classroom and administrative experience for a secretary of Education given the responsibilities of the position, it does not make sense to exclude people with substantial experience from even being considered by the governor and the Senate.”

By its nature, the bill does restrict the governor’s powers slightly, something acknowledged by the sponsor. However, he believes the benefits — getting a secretary who is more likely to be qualified — outweigh any risks caused upping the limit.

Many education professionals had expressed a desire for future secretaries to be more in-tune with them, he said, and a number of teachers have shared their support since the bill was introduced.
The Delaware State Education Association was not aware of the proposal ahead of time but stands behind it now.

“There’s no reason why we wouldn’t support a piece of legislation that would increase experience,” said Kristin Dwyer, the organization’s director of legislation and political organizing.

The bill was released from the Senate Education Committee this past week, meaning it will go to the full Senate.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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