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VIEWPOINT: New strategies needed to improve public schools, student outcomes

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Delaware’s public education system is in dire need of reform and new approaches.

State Rep. Lyndon Yearick and State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn discusses why Delaware’s public education system need reform.

State Rep. Lyndon Yearick and State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn

According to the Department of Education, a staggering six of every ten students are not proficient in English Language Arts. A shocking 70% are not meeting standards for mathematics. One in five students are missing from the classroom at least 10% of the time. Teachers have also been chronically absent, leaving students in the hands of substitutes, often for weeks at a time.

As one recent independent assessment concluded: “Based on an analysis of data from the National Assessment of Education Progress, Delaware’s student outcomes lag behind those of other Mid-Atlantic states and have declined over the past decade, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council ranks Delaware 37th in the nation for education. The assessment was based on academic standards, charter schools, private school choice, home school regulation, teacher quality, and digital learning.

A significant hurdle to improving our education system is our outdated and inefficient method of financing it. A recent briefing to the House and Senate education committees revealed that Delaware is one of only six states still utilizing a resource-based funding formula–a system in place since before World War II. This formula, which distributes funding based on school enrollment, is ineffective and inefficient.

Delaware’s system also fails to effectively offset funding inequities at the local level, a mechanism known as equalization. In the report, district administrators described this system as “broken,” “flawed,” and “outdated.” The result is a deeply unfair distribution of student funding levels that vary from district to district and fall short of allocating sufficient funds to help those with the most expensive needs (English learners, students with disabilities, and low-income students).

We can no longer be content with making a few tweaks to further delay making the hard choices. Public school funding must be overhauled.

Another area that needs critical attention is ensuring our students achieve literacy early in their education. Delaware students’ reading scores have reportedly dropped from sixth in the nation in 2002 to thirty-seventh in 2022. That is unacceptable. A solid grasp of reading and writing is the foundation on which academic success is built. Students lacking this knowledge fall behind early and struggle to catch up. Many never do.

Two years ago, the General Assembly passed two bipartisan bills to improve the situation. The first required the Department of Education to establish literacy instruction curricula (K to 3) using proven, practical concepts. The second measure required K to 3 students to be screened three times annually to identify potential reading deficiencies so they could be quickly addressed.

While these laws were a step in the right direction, more must be done. 

We believe something similar to the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, passed by the Mississippi General Assembly in 2013, should be adopted here. The program targets those schools with the highest percentages of students struggling with language concepts and deploys literacy coaches that provide professional development to teachers and administrators. Once one of the worst public education systems in the nation, now nearly 85 percent of Mississippi’s third-graders pass their reading assessments.

Other positive steps await action in the General Assembly, needing only a consensus to approve.

We should embrace State Rep. Jeff Hilovsky’s (House Substitute 1 for House Bill 203) proposal to guarantee that all high school students receive a basic understanding of financial concepts. This is minor coursework that could have a considerable impact. Young adults with knowledge of these critical concepts will be better positioned to make pivotal choices concerning higher education, debt, careers, and many other things that could shape their lives.

Another measure, this one authored by State Rep. Bryan Shupe (HS 1 for HB 66), seeks to increase transparency of school and student performance. Parents need to be active partners in their children’s education, and facilitating easier access to this data will help accomplish that.

Rep. Shupe is also sponsoring legislation to require that the people in charge of schools where more than 90% of the students are failing to meet state academic standards immediately collaborate with the Department of Education to craft and implement a turnaround plan. Astonishingly, dozens of Delaware schools fall into this intolerable category. It is hard to imagine why this bill is not already a mandate.

We fully realize that elevating public education will require bipartisan commitment and the cooperation of our next governor. With that in mind, we have sponsored House Concurrent Resolution 98, requesting that the new chief executive provide his or her recommendations to the 153rd General Assembly on education funding, improving academic performance, standardized testing, and school safety.  

Our schools have been on the decline for too long, and it is past time we acted. We can no longer deceive ourselves into thinking that maintaining the status quo is acceptable.

State Rep. Lyndon Yearick is the House Minority Whip serving representative district 34 and State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn is the Senate Minority Whip serving district 19.

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