Delaware to complete review of public school needs, demographics

 Governor Jack Markell (center) and Board of Education president Teri Quinn Gray (right) at Thursday's announcement. (Avi Wolfman-Arent, Newsworks)

Governor Jack Markell (center) and Board of Education president Teri Quinn Gray (right) at Thursday's announcement. (Avi Wolfman-Arent, Newsworks)

Delaware Governor Jack Markell announced Thursday that the state will review its public school landscape to gauge demand for specialized programs and map demographic trends.

“The purpose is to identify the new kinds of programs that would benefit the state and help us understand those that would not benefit the state,” Markell said at the state’s monthly Board of Education meeting.

The governor also said the state would not approve any more charter schools until the so-called “needs assessment” has been completed. That condition, while eyebrow-raising, is unlikely to have any effect. The state already decided that it will not approve any new charters for the 2016-17 school year and plans to finish its review before charter approvals for the 2017-18 year are due.

The booming growth of charters in Delaware did, however, prompt Markell to act.

“Following the recent influx of charter schools in Wilmington we need a strategic plan so that when charter schools open they meet a specific need in the communities they serve,” Markell said.

Charter enrollment in Wilmington is expected to rise 90 percent over the next five years, according to a recently released report by the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee . Markell formed the advisory committee last year, and the group recommended Delaware cease granting any new charters in Wilmington until the state formed a strategic plan that would manage their growth.

Markell seized on that idea, but decided to apply it statewide and to all schools. The impending public schools review will encompass traditional public schools, charters, vocational and technical schools, and magnet schools. The state will then form a strategic plan that identifies where demand exceeds supply and what kind of schools, if any, should be built to fill those needs.

It will be conducted by an outside, third party which the state will select through an open request for proposals process.

Though other municipalities have conducted similar reviews, Delaware officials believe their needs assessment will be the first of its kind for an entire state.

“This will not be easy,” said Teri Quinn Gray, president of the Delaware Board of Education. “No state has ever done it in a comprehensive way.”

The Delaware Charter Schools Network, the state’s main charter advocacy group, is backing Markell’s new initiative. “We’re very excited about this,” said Kendall Massett, the network’s executive director. She added, “We don’t want all schools to be charter schools. We want all schools to be excellent schools. One of the best ways to do that is to know what the landscape is.”

Waiver approved

At the same meeting, Delaware’s Board of Education approved the state’s ESEA flexibility waiver. That document will now go to the U.S. Department of Education for final approval.

Delaware must receive an annual waiver from the U.S. Department of Education in order to be granted full flexibility in how it uses federal dollars. Those waivers include updates on the state’s education policies, including its accountability levers.

This year’s waiver proved particularly prickly.

Within the last month, a coalition of legislators and advocacy groups demanded the Delaware Department of Education include a provision that would further delay tying student scores on a new standardized test to educator evaluations. State officials initially balked at that request, in part because such a reprieve has already been granted for the 2014-15 school year. The legislators, however, wanted to postpone using the test scores for a second year.

Markell eventually intervened, and the Department of Education added the requested provision to its draft waiver on Tuesday. If the U.S. Department of Education approves the waiver, Delaware’s teachers and principals will not be held accountable for student scores on the new test until 2017 at the earliest, even though students will still be asked to take the exam.

Several members of the Board of Education puzzled over the late addition of this requested delay, with some insinuating that the department had caved to special interest groups such as the statewide teacher’s union.

“I’m struggling for the rationale behind this change other than we got pressured,” said board member G. Patrick Heffernan.

He further worried that such delays would become routine.

“I get the sense we just keep pushing it off, keep pushing it off,” Heffernan said. “There’s always going to be one more year.”

A representative from the statewide teacher’s union noted that a large and diverse group of officials had requested the delay, and that the two-year hiatus would give educators the needed time to adjust.

Despite some back and forth among members, the board approved Delaware’s flexibility waiver unanimously.

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