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A bill requiring underperforming schools to take action on proficiency stalled: what happened?

Republican lawmakers are looking to revive a bill that would require underperforming schools to take immediate action in improving proficiency rates among students.

While the legislation passed the House Education Committee, House Floor and Senate Education Committee with bipartisan ease last legislative session, it has now stalled in the Senate — the last leg of the legislative process before heading to the governor for signature.

What would this bill do

House Bill 192 was introduced in June 2023 with the intention of requiring schools where students have a single-digit proficiency in English language arts or math to work with the Department of Education (DOE) to immediately to raise proficiency rates.

The bill’s sponsor State Rep. Bryan Shupe (R-Milford South) explained underperforming schools would be required to develop not only a long-term plan, but a short-term plan to address the shortfalls.

“We can’t forget about those families as they’re working — going through that school right now and just say, ‘well, we’re going to look down the road and see what systematic things we can change,’ and forget about that kid that is there right now and forget to help them,” Shupe said.

Under the bill, a school leader must present the short-term and long-term plan to raise state assessment performances for school board approval and provide annual updates on information about and implementation of the plan.

This bill also requires DOE to submit an annual report that contains information on schools with single-digit proficiency and schools with an overall student body achievement proficiency level of less than 20% but greater than single-digit proficiency in English language arts or math.

Shupe said he’s seen states like Tennessee and Mississippi rebound from low-proficiency rankings by putting pressure on school administrators to develop short-term and long-term plans like these.

“A lot of it has to do with making sure that the local families and the local students and the local community are involved, and it also has to do with recognizing that there are problems that take difficult discussions to have and to find out what those problems are, not only within the schools, but also what are those challenges and opportunities within the communities,” Shupe said.

Why has the bill not been heard in the Senate

Despite Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola (D-Newark) being one of the bill’s co-sponsors, he has made it clear he is no longer interested in supporting the bill if it has the underlying intention of setting up a school voucher system in Delaware.

A school voucher, also known as an education passport, would allow families in single-digit proficiency schools who also meet the federal poverty income level to be given a “voucher” or “passport” that would allow the family to send their student to any private school in Delaware instead of their current school.

In September 2022 on his campaign website, Shupe wrote: “I am proposing that in single-[digit] proficiency schools, families should have direct, daily intervention for both math and English and also other choices. Each family should have the ability to school choice, and be accepted, to other schools within that County to receive the adequate education level they need for their child. Each family at single-digit proficiency rate schools should also be given the choice to have an education passport to any private school in Delaware in the same amount that taxpayers are paying for his/her public education.”

In response, Sokola said, “On Rep. Shupe’s campaign site, he now makes clear that this bill is intended to be his first step toward a school voucher program, a policy that has been shown time and again to undermine public education, harm students with disabilities, and exacerbate inequity in educational outcomes.”

“Given that the Delaware Department of Education has assured us that it already works with schools to develop improvement plans, it’s hard to conclude that HB 192 is anything other than a cynical attempt to seed the ground for a school voucher system that would shift public funding away from high-poverty public schools to religious and for-profit enterprises,” Sokola added. “Senate Democrats are simply unwilling to be complicit in any effort to form the building blocks of a school voucher program.”

Shupe said he is working on a separate bill to try and establish a school voucher system in Delaware, but he believes HB 192 is its own entity and can be supported independently.

“In my perspective, these are separate bills, and there’s no reason why a single-digit school shouldn’t have an improvement plan. By ignoring this, the Senate Democrats are basically saying that they’re fine with single-digit proficiency schools where over 90% of the kids are not learning at grade-level,” Shupe said.

He also recognized some schools already have an improvement system in place — such as those that are identified for “comprehensive support and improvement” or “targeted support and improvement” by DOE — in which case, the bill would not apply to them.

In preliminary research for the bill, Senior Legislative Attorney Cara Wilson found at least 11 schools statewide that have single-digit proficiency in English language arts or math that do not have some type of improvement plan already in place.

“The Senate can always vote for this requirement for these single-digit schools to have local plans, and then when the second bill comes across their desk, they can vote no,” Shupe said. “It sounds like, to me, that they’re afraid that after this bill goes through with improvement plans, that families might ask for more choices and more accountability, and I don’t understand why that would be a negative thing for our families and for our students here in Delaware.”

Disagreements have also ensued over the bill’s request to be brought to the Senate floor.

“It’s unfortunate that Rep. Shupe chose to reach out to the media before he or his Senate prime sponsor ever made a formal request to have the bill placed on the Senate agenda, which he knows is the standard protocol,” Sokola said, while Shupe said he has made formal request to put the bill on the Senate agenda through calls to Sokola’s office as well as through the Senate Education Chair Laura Sturgeon (D-Brandywine Hundred).

In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Brian Pettyjohn (R-Georgetown) said: “I am going to urge the Senate leadership to add this bill to the agenda as soon as possible so we can hopefully approve it and send it to the governor for his signature.”

House Education Committee Chair and co-sponsor of the bill State Rep. Kim Williams (D-Stanton) declined to comment on the legislation.

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