Early education, school safety major topics at budget hearing

DOVER — Support for early childhood education, mental health and school safety were among the chief topics during Thursday’s Joint Finance Committee hearing on public education.

The recommended budget for public education has a 5.35% increase from last fiscal year, bringing the proposed total for education to $1.65 billion.

For nearly four hours, the committee reviewed the proposed budget and heard more than 30 individuals discuss different facets of education programming.

Susan Bunting

As a portion of the overall funding, $25 million was earmarked for added support for needy students and mental health counselors through Opportunity Grant Funding.

As part of the Opportunity Fund, which would enter its second year, funding targets students who come from low-income homes or are English language learners. Secretary of Education Susan Bunting said the funding also provides technical assistance and staff resources at schools that have student populations in need.

“The shift from competitive opportunity grants to Opportunity Funding that targets resources for students from low-income families and English language learners is one of the most important changes in helping us to better support our schools,” Secretary Bunting told the JFC in her remarks Thursday.

Part of the funding also ties into mental health.

“Student safety and their mental health and wellness is a key issue for us,” said Caesar Rodney Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald in his remarks to the committee. “We look at the mental health issues in our students as something that is paramount. We understand that students that struggle at home, that struggle with issues that cannot be dealt with anywhere other than in a school through the support of a psychologist, a guidance counselor, a social worker, it is essential for them to be able to continue their education and to proceed into bigger and better things.”

Dr. Kevin R. Fitzgerald

Mental health was discussed when University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis went before the JFC last week, where he noted that students are not ready to attend UD straight out of high school.

Dr. Fitzgerald said while districts were “hurt” by the comments, it won’t “stop us from doing what we do best and to prepare our students to do great things,” he said.

“What he did mention, though, was something that we are all very concerned about: He brought the issue of mental health, and that is a concern for each and every one of us,” he said. “I know it’s a concern of legislators, as it is our secretary, because that’s a point of emphasis for us. It’s something that we continue to work on each and every day.”

In the governor’s budget, a proposed increase of $5 million is earmarked for early childhood education. Of that, $2 million seeks additional spots for children, and $3 million to improve professional learning programs for early childhood providers and to develop an online system that will provide families with information and access to programs and services.

Dr. Bunting noted that the state received a federal Preschool Development Grant, which the department is using to complete a statewide birth through age 5 needs assessment to “determine the state’s current early learning needs and priorities,” she said.

“From this the state will be developing a strategic plan to enhance Delaware’s early learning system,” she continued. “For many families, navigating the early education world is challenging because it involves multiple public agencies, as well as nonprofit and private organizations, particularly for those families whose children qualify for early intervention services.”

She added the department is also looking to revise Delaware Stars, which is the rating system for early childcare programs.

Rep. Quinton Johnson, D-Middletown, said the conversation about pre-K comes because some children are not prepared for kindergarten.

“That is why we need to continue to focus on 0 to 5, as well as the school-age program,” he said. “Every child should have the starting ground entering into their academic career. And there shouldn’t be barriers because we didn’t pick our parents, we didn’t pick the lifestyle that we were born into, we didn’t pick any of the circumstances that are affecting us, otherwise we wouldn’t have. And so it is our role as the government, in my opinion, to make sure that those barriers are brought down and the access is available.”

He added that while he is pleased to see the $5 million for early childhood education, he noted there was no funding request for the revision to the Stars program.

“I want to see it succeed because I do feel with all my heart that unfortunately, the $75 million that the governor put in place would not have been necessary if we had been a step ahead with the younger children in our state,” he said.

Safety within schools was also a topic of concern.

Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, said that the state should do a better job protecting students.

“I can guarantee you I can go to any school, any building in this state and walk in undetected,” he said. “It’s not hard to do at all. And that scares me tremendously. If I, the little old farm boy can do it, can you imagine with somebody who is hell-bent on hurting our children can do? We are not protecting our children worth a hoot. The money’s there, but the emphasis is not.”

In discussing the request for funding school safety, representatives noted that there was need for flexibility.

“In some instances, it would be being able to fund either school resource officers or constables, to be able to provide training for our teachers, provide training for our administrators, and for our students,” Dr. Fitzgerald said.

The governor’s proposed budget also includes $29.3 million for a 2% pay increase and steps for educators, $4.6 million for school technology infrastructure, $500,000 for the Governor’s Performance Academy and Delaware Performance Appraisal System Pilot II increases, $36.5 million for school enrollment growth and funds set aside for school districts’ construction and renovation:

Brandywine: $1.6 million

Wilmington Education Initiatives: $50 million

Appoquinimink: $59.5 million

Capital: $20.7 million

Cape Henlopen: $35.7 million

Indian River: $16.2 million.