Markell axes Delaware opt-out bill

     (<a href=Student filling out answers to a test via ShutterStock) " title="education16x9-1" width="640" height="360"/>

    (Student filling out answers to a test via ShutterStock)

    Delaware Governor Jack Markell vetoed a bill Thursday that would have allowed parents to opt their children out of standardized assessments.

    The Governor’s action lends a dramatic end to what had become one of the state’s most talked about legislative tussles.

    Markell has long opposed House Bill 50–known colloquially as the opt-out bill–but had not said definitively whether he would veto it. In finally doing so, Markell cited familiar objections–namely that the measure would undermine the state’s ability to assess student progress, allow districts to deliberately avoid testing disadvantaged students, and potentially incur the wrath of the federal government.

    “HB 50 would undermine the only objective tool we have to understand whether our children are learning and our schools are improving,” Markell wrote in a statement. “It has the potential to marginalize our highest need students, threaten tens of millions of dollars of federal funding, and undermine our state’s economic competitiveness – all without adequately addressing the issues that motivated many to support the legislation.”

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    Opt-out supporters say parents should have the right to remove their children from standardized tests that have become too onerous and are improperly used to punish districts, schools, and teachers.

    For the first time this year, Delaware administered a statewide exam aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The new test, known as Smarter Balanced, was billed as more challenging than previous tests and many expect scores will drop when they are announced later this summer.

    Representative John Kowalko, D-Newark, authored the legislation and vowed Thursday to reintroduce it next session with an eye toward overriding Markell’s veto. He said he expected the Governor’s action, but still felt a letdown.

    “I’m more than a little disappointed on behalf of the parents,” Kowalko said.

    Overriding a gubernatorial veto in Delaware requires a three-fifths vote in each chamber of the state’s General Assembly.

    The current version of the opt-out bill received more than 70 percent of available votes in both the house and senate.

    Representative Kim Williams, D-Wilmington, also voiced disappointment. Williams opted her own son out of statewide testing and championed the opt-out bill during public debates.

    “It’s quite a shame when you have parents, teachers, and community members all supporting something and it gets vetoed,” Williams said.

    Delaware’s teacher’s union and its state PTA supported the opt-out bill. Business and civil rights groups largely opposed the measure.

    Despite opt-out’s ultimate failure, Williams argued that the bill stirred up necessary debate around the place of testing in Delaware schools.

    “There was a lot of good discussion,” Williams said. “More people are aware of what’s going on.”

    Indeed the opt-out bill may have mattered more for the debate it inspired than the potential impact of the statute itself. Hundreds of Delaware parents opted their students out of standardized assessments over the past year, largely without repercussions.

    Nevertheless, opt-out became a lightning rod. For those who oppose Markell’s education reform agenda, the bill became a platform for attack. The measure served an inverse purpose for those who like the governor’s policy positions on education–which tend to rely on data analysis and broader accountability.

    Aside from the commotion it created in floor debates, opt-out also stole headlines for its odd path through the legislature.

    The state house initially passed a bill that only allowed parents to opt students out of the Smarter Balanced assessment. A Senate amendment changed the language to include all district and state-wide exams. The bill then traveled back to the house where it was tweaked again, forcing yet another vote in the senate.

    After all that finagling, it finally landed on the governor’s desk.

    While he vetoed the measure, Markell reiterated that he is concerned about over-testing in Delaware schools. The Governor recently launched a testing inventory that is designed to reduce the total number of tests students take.

    Opt-out supporters often said the Governor’s inventory initiative was a political ploy to undercut their momentum. But Markell stood by the proposal in his Thursday statement.

    “I have heard the concerns of some parents and teachers that our students are experiencing too much testing. I agree,” the Governor said.

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