Delaware Department of Education defends budget request

 (<a href="In God We Trust" image courtesy of Shutterstock.com) " title="shutterstock_149361749-3" width="640" height="480"/>

("In God We Trust" image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

In a meeting marked by conviviality, Delaware’s Department of Education defended its budget request before the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee Wednesday.

Governor Jack Markell’s proposed budget for the department totals just under $1.4 billion, roughly 90 million more than the general assembly allotted last year.

The Department of Education’s proposal focused on a $11.3 million increase in early childhood education, one of the governor’s favorite causes. It also highlighted investments in college scholarships for low-income students, technological infrastructure inside schools, and salary increases for starting teachers.

Perhaps more striking than the request itself, was the good cheer with which legislators received it.

Last year, in the same meeting, members of the Joint Finance Committee grilled then-Secretary of Education Mark Murphy. Legislators took particular exception with money earmarked to preserve administrative positions originally funded by the federal government through the Race to the Top grant program. That money was not ultimately included in the budget bill, but many of the positions were preserved anyway, further angering legislators.

Murphy stepped down last September and was replaced by longtime Delaware educator and administrator Stephen Godowsky. Members of the Joint Finance Committee took special pains to welcome Godowsky and thank him for his clear communication style.

“I appreciate the breath of fresh air,” Sen.David Lawson, R-Marydel, said, who later called Godowsky “a total 180 from the previous secretary.”

“It’s very refreshing to have you as Secretary of Education,” Rep. Joseph Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley added.

Legislators did interrogate the new secretary over an unexpected increase in the number of teacher funding units. The department requested 188 extra funding units, 78 more than the 110 extra units initially projected. The revised request added more than $6.5 million to the department’s budget.

Teacher funding units are awarded on a per-student basis. Special education students generate more funding units than their peers and department officials attributed the unexpected ask to an unusual increase in the number of special education students entering Delaware schools.

This marks the third year in a row the Department of Education has requested more funding units than it had initially expected to request. Officials said they’ve commissioned a study to see if their projection system needs updating.

Tellingly, the Department of Education’s budget ask also sets aside $4 million for teacher compensation reform.

Markell has long pressed for structural changes to the teacher pay scale, as well as a bump in starting salary for new teachers. A committee looking into the issue has yet to release final recommendations. The budget request will act as a placeholder to ensure the legislature can act on those recommendations when they’re released—likely sometime in May.

The department’s budget also includes a similar, $6 million request to carry out the recommendations of the Wilmington Education Improvement Committee (WEIC).

WEIC has proposed redistricting changes in Wilmington and a pilot program to increase funding for low-income students and English language learners. WEIC’s plan will be presented to the State Board of Education on Thursday for action. If it clears that hurdle it would then head to the legislature.

The Department of Education also requested $1 million for a statewide after school initiative; $1 million for a technology block grant; $3 million for increased bandwidth at the district level; just over $1 million for the state’s SEED scholarship program to serve low-income students headed to state colleges; $250,000 for the governor’s career pathways program; $230,000 for department technology operations; and $500,000 for the charter school performance fund

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