Big talk, subtle change: how education played out in the 2015 Delaware General Assembly

 (Ty Wright/AP Photo)

(Ty Wright/AP Photo)

Few issues loomed larger during Delaware’s 2015 General Assembly than education.

But for all the headlines and bold ink, it’s hard to find a bill that truly transformed education policy in the state.

In fact, 2015 may go down as the year of big talk and subtle change.

No bill better captured that dichotomy than House Bill 50, also known as the Opt Out bill. The measure itself was tame. It simply asserted that parents have the right to remove their children from state- or district-wide assessments, something parents have already been doing without consequence.

And yet opt out became a lightning rod, less because of its content and more because it offered an opportunity for disgruntled lawmakers and interest groups to browbeat the Delaware Department of Education.

“This bill is an expression of frustration,” said State Senator Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, during a senate floor debate.

That’s not to say there weren’t legitimate arguments for and against the measure, or that there weren’t passionate advocates on both sides of the issue. But legislators clearly saw opt out as a way to hit back at the current administration and its perceived top-down approach to education reform.

Eventually House Bill 50 cleared both chambers. It now awaits a decision from Governor Jack Markell, who opposes the measure but has not said whether he will veto it.

It was apparent early on that education would be a combustible issue. When the DOE appeared before the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee in February, legislators bombarded department leaders with questions over how the state spent federal Race to the Top money.

That sense of conflict pervaded the rest of the session, and played out most viscerally during heated opt out debates.

So, what actually got done in the 2015 General Assembly?

There were, it should be said, bills with far-reaching implications.

Perhaps the most significant was a measure empowering the State Board of Education to redraw district lines in Wilmington. That could someday lead to the Colonial and Christina School Districts leaving Delaware’s biggest city, while the Red Clay and Brandywine School Districts remain.

Such a shift would be momentous. Wilmington has been split four ways since the 1980s. Re-consolidating would likely spur the construction of a new, comprehensive high school in Wilmington. It could also accelerate re-segregation in a state just decades removed from bitter school segregation battles.

Other big-ticket items included a moratorium on charter schools in Wilmington—at least until the state can draft a strategic growth plan—and the formation of advisory groups to craft a new teacher compensation system.

All three of the above bills planted a seed, but we’re still a long way from the harvest. It’s one thing to set up committees and grant powers. It’s another thing to work out the details. And the details here will be vital. You don’t futz with salaries or district lines without drawing lots of interest from lots of interest groups.

Even as the legislature took necessary steps to move these issues forward, one wonders what fate awaits them next year.

Take teacher compensation, for example.

The Governor wants badly to bump educator’s starting salaries and create teacher-leader positions that will allow good teachers to climb the career ladder without leaving the classroom. He’s endorsed the plan in multiple State of the State addresses and would surely love to go down as the first Governor in decades to change the way Delaware pays its teachers. The effort, however, will likely cost the state an additional $10-15 million a year, and it’s hard to see where lawmakers will find that money given the bleak financial forecast.

And even if we disregard fiscal hang-ups, what about political will?

In an election year, will the General Assembly event want to touch some of these messy and complicated reform items? And now that lawmakers have clashed openly with Department of Education leadership, will all sides be able to re-set and work together?

Despite a tricky climate, the Markell administration manged to advance some big issues in 2015—even if the headlines focused elsewhere. On charter growth, teacher pay, and redistricting, the proverbial pins have been set up.

Is there enough time left, though, to knock them down?

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.