Talking opt out, redistricting with Delaware lawmakers

What’s the mood in Dover concerning education issues?


Recently, I sat down with state senators Dave Sokola (D-Newark) and Ernie Lopez (R-Rehobeth), and  state representatives Earl Jaques (D-Glasgow) and Kevin Hensley (R-Middletown) to talk education.

And indeed there’s plenty to talk about. Be it grumbling over standardized tests, questions about leadership at the Department of Education, or talk of redistricting in Wilmington, Delaware schools have dominated local headlines.

But what do the First State’s decision makers think of all the bold-ink news?

Sokola and Jaques chair the senate and house education committees respectively. Lopez is a member of the senate’s education committee. Hensley is a member of the house of representatives’ education committee. The quartet will face some important decisions in the 148th General Assembly, and I tried to Gage how they’ll approach these fiercely debated issues.

Viewer note:  The education panel begins at the 7:42 mark of the above video.

Redistricting Wilmington: optimism and caution

Last month, the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee became just the latest group to call for a redrawing of Wilmington’s school district lines. The committee suggested that the Christina and Colonial School Districts forfeit their share of Wilmington students, leaving only two districts–Red Clay and Brandywine–in the long-divided city.

The idea has momentum, and the support of Jaques. But he warned against moving too fast on the issue. He also said definitively that Wilmington will not transition to a new district map until 2017-18 at the earliest.

“It will not happen for the 2016-2017 year because there’s a lot of funding issues,” said Jaques. “There’s a lot of details that need to be worked out.”

The next step for the legislature, most likely, is to pass a measure asking the state’s Board of Education to look into the issue of redistricting. Jaques said he wasn’t sure if that legislation would make it through this session, but was confident it would surface before the 148th General Assembly wraps up in 2016.

Sokola echoed much of what Jaques said in an segment of the interview that did not make that cut.

All this talk of due diligence and prudence could throw another wrench into the already wrench-filled priority schools process. The Christina School District will get to keep three under-performing schools that the state had threatened to close or convert to charter schools for at. The state did so, it said, because Christina would soon be leaving Wilmington, meaning the schools in question would become part of Red Clay. Officials labeled 2015-16 a transition year, effectively tabling the debate over how the schools would be turned around.

It seems, however, that the debate will extend at least another twelve months, through the 2016-17 school year. There’s been no word yet on what will happen to the schools during 2016-17, but it’s likely that the two sides–who have sparred often over the last year–will have to strike another deal.

Opting out of opt out

Few subjects in education inspire fiercer debate than standardized tests.

Over the last few years, parents around the country have pulled their children out of high-stakes standardized testing as a form of protest. The so-dubbed opt-out movement has begun to make inroads in Delaware. A recently introduced bill would support a parent’s right to opt his or her child out of state exams.

But will it have the support necessary to pass?

Jaques is a firm and avowed opponent of opt-out. Sokola, Lopez, and Hensley expressed similar sentiments.

“I think the parents need to realize–and I think the majority of them do– that some sort of an evaluation tool is necessary,” Lopez said. “Opting out is something actually that I’m concerned about, because at the end of the day we’re putting so many state resources into education you have to have instruments to measure them.”

Governor Jack Markell announced last month the state would look to reduce the overall testing burden. That said, the opt out movement seems not to have penetrated the mainstream inside Legislative Hall.

Mum on Murphy

During a February hearing in front of the Joint Finance Committee, legislators peppered secretary of education Mark Murphy with questions about how the Delaware Department of Education spent over $100-million of Race to the Top money. Later that same day, a similar scenario played out in front of Jaques and the house of representatives’ education committee.

Last month, the state’s teacher’s union added insult by voting no confidence in the secretary.

I asked the panelists whether they felt Murphy was still the right man for the job, given all the grumbling. None of the four seemed eager to answer that question. And what answers they did give, were noncommittal.

“I’m anxious to get some more details on where he’s looking to put resources prior to saying yes, no in respect to the job that he’s doing,” said Hensley.

“I think a serious internal conversation needs to be going on–that he leads the discussion on–with those in the Department of Education, and how they can regain that trust and regain that confidence with the teachers,” Lopez added.

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