School test opt-out bill OK’d by House

 

DOVER — A bill allowing parents to opt their children out of the statewide standardized test passed the Delaware House of Representatives by a large margin Tuesday — after it had failed just half an hour before.

The bill’s prospects changed quickly when Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, made the unusual move of calling for the legislation to be brought back to the House floor after the measure had failed to pass in a first vote.

A motion to reconsider the bill earned enough votes to put the proposal back on the table, and this time it passed.

House Bill 50 will now be heard by the Senate for a second time as supporters continue to push for the right for students to avoid taking the Smarter Balanced assessment.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, said he believes the Senate amendments were intended to kill the bill. He thinks the bill will fail in the Senate once more.

Rep. John Kowalko

Rep. John Kowalko

Nonetheless, “[i]mpending doom over there is better than guaranteeing it’s dead here,” he said.

On Tuesday it first appeared the state’s executive branch had won a victory and avid supporters had been dealt a severe blow. But that outcome was turned on its head a short time later.

The House passed the bill with 31 votes in support and just five in opposition, while five other lawmakers were absent or abstained from voting. The initial tally had it garnering 18 votes, three shy of the needed sum.

An amendment to remove a Senate-added provision letting high school juniors make their own choice to opt out was narrowly defeated at first, after it received 18 votes. When the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Spiegelman, brought the bill back up the House was much more favorable, passing it with 34 votes.

During the first discussion, Rep. Kowalko said the proposal simply clarifies the already-existing right of parents to choose not to have their students take the test, something education officials have argued against.

“The reality I’m looking at here is parents want this bill, PTA wants this bill, teachers want this bill. Governor, his appointed DoE and state board do not want this bill,” he said. “Certain hired hands may have put on amendments to this bill to try to kill it, but the bottom line is this bill still authorizes the parents to have a provision in place to opt their child out.”

Rep. Spiegelman’s amendment failed the first time only after several Democrats switched their votes from yes to no once the tally was in.

In the initial debate, several lawmakers argued that the amendments, which would have expanded opt-out to all state- and district-wide tests and let juniors choose not take the Smarter Balance test, would harm the state’s education system.

Rep. Michael Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, argued that supporters were failing to consider the consequences of the bill.

“Anybody in this body that would let a 17-year-old kid or a 16-year-old go into a school and tell his teacher that he wants to do something different that his parents (want), I think is even more irresponsible to vote for a bill like that,” he said as his voice rose.

“What I’d like to see us do is put the bill back the way it’s supposed to be and maybe work in again in January and get the right results,” he added.

He did get his wish later, as the amendment was stripped from the bill.

Reps. Ramone and Kowalko later issued apologies to one another on the floor, with Rep. Kowalko clarifying his public criticism was meant to be directed at the Senate.

Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, one of three lawmakers who didn’t vote for the legislation in May, again pushed for members of the House to reject House Bill 50.

“Does that mean that no child will ever be tested again in our schools?” he said. “Are we never going to be able to use assessments to figure out the benefits, where resources need to go or whatever? That’s what Senate Amendment 1 does. It opens up to all tests.

“Senate Amendment 2, which we’ve already had some discussions on, basically allows a child to opt out. So everybody who voted for this bill when it was over here the first time because you wanted parents to have their rights, you vote for this bill today, you’re taking those rights today. That’s exactly what you’re doing.”

Ultimately, with Senate Amendment 2 overturned, the legislation found enough supporters to pass. If it passes the Senate, Gov. Jack Markell, an open opponent of House Bill 50, would have to choose whether to utilize his veto power.

The Senate has today, Thursday and Tuesday to vote on the bill before adjourning for the rest of the year.

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

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