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Delaware's new Dept. of Education under Susan Bunting

Megan Pauly
Delaware Public Media

Throughout his campaign last year - and here at the start of his term in office - Gov. John Carney emphasized the state’s Department of Education would look much different under his watch.  He's promised a shift from its regulatory role to a support role

What exactly that will look like is still a bit unclear, but we do know that the person in charge of making it happen is Carney’s choice for Education Secretary – former Indian River School District superintendent Susan Bunting.

Contributor Larry Nagengast spent time with Bunting recently to get some insight into what's next for DOE.

Back when she was teaching gifted and talented students in the Red Clay Consolidated School District, Frederika Jenner knew where to go for help.

“I had a class of first graders,” the Delaware State Education Association president recalls, and the group included “a couple of kids who could not only read at the sixth-grade level but could also do sixth-grade math.”

When she realized that those students had abilities beyond what she was accustomed to working with, Jenner got in touch with the state Department of Education. “I had a math specialist meet with me and talk about strategies, how to test these kids to find out exactly where they were,” she says.  “I’m not sure you could have gotten a response like that in the last six or eight years.”

The reason such help was less available, Jenner and others say, is because the Department of Education had become more of a regulatory agency – making and enforcing rules, setting standards and monitoring how well districts and schools were meeting them – and in the process devoted relatively less time to providing services to educators at the school and classroom level.

Susan S. Bunting has many of the same memories as Jenner. When she taught in the Indian River School District, whether it was gifted and talented students or middle school language arts, she knew that subject-area curriculum specialists in Dover were available to answer questions or give advice.

As a teacher, Bunting appreciated the support she received. Recently, as superintendent of the Indian River School District in Sussex County, she noticed how the department had changed, how the role of curriculum specialists had morphed into other responsibilities.

Now, as Delaware’s new secretary of education, she will be trying, in at least one way, to turn back the clock, to make the Department of Education, in her works, “more of a coach than a catcher.”

The department, Bunting promises, “won’t be as much of a regulatory agency as it has been, and more of a service and support agency. That’s my style.”

This refocusing of the department was one of the key recommendations made by Gov. John Carney’s transition team in the report it prepared before he took office in January. The report stated that the department should “foster collaboration and build partnerships with local education agencies and between local education agencies.”

At  the Feb. 28 meeting of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, Carney spoke of “reorganizing” the department to focus on providing resources for school districts. “There will be a regulatory function, for sure, but less of that,” he said.

Bunting, at the WEIC meeting and in an interview, stopped short of calling the changes a reorganization of the department, but she made clear that the education community, and Delaware residents, should find the agency less combative and more service-oriented.

“I’m a firm believer in communication and in collaboration,” she says of the relationship between state and local school authorities. “We’re going to work together as a team.”

She points to the most recent draft of the state’s ESSA Plan, a document required by the federal government to show how the state intends to use federal funds granted under the provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Districts will have far more flexibility,” she says. “We have the opportunity, district by district, to determine how best to use the funds that are coming to us. What you need in Milford is not what you need in Christina, and what you need in Laurel is not what you need in Smyrna. Having more opportunities to make it right for your district is a gift we have not always had.”

However, with Carney speaking repeatedly of the state’s pending $350 million gap between spending requests and anticipated revenues for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Bunting is gently reminding districts that they will have to take some step on their own if they want to improve their offerings.

“We’re facing a fiscal challenge like one we haven’t seen before,” she said at the WEIC meeting. “There is a need for a change of attitude and perspective at the local level.”

“She has done it,” Jenner says, pointing to Bunting’s efforts as superintendent in Indian River to provide additional instructional support for the district’s math and science teachers. “She knows the importance of being a better resource.”

As another example, Bunting pointed to her success in persuading the Indian River school board to realign its spending of revenue from local property taxes to increase programs for the district’s rapidly growing population of English-language learners.

“Sometimes you just have to change the way you go about things,” she said. “At the local level, there will have to be some decisions made.”

WEIC, as part of its proposal to improve educational opportunities for students in Wilmington, has been advocating for a statewide weighted funding initiative that would provide extra money statewide for English-language learners, children from low-income families and students in kindergarten through third grade with special educational needs.

Earlier in the WEIC meeting, Carney raised eyebrows of some commission members with the suggestion that, rather than relying on the state, districts consider reallocating some of their federal Title I funds to bolster programs for students in those groupings. In a statement issued the following day, WEIC chairman Tony Allen said “federal Title I funding is not a substitute for state funding” in closing the gap in educational services for these high-need children.

In an interview, Bunting did say that she is open to revisions in the state’s education funding system, but added that changes will be difficult in the state’s current financial condition.

The unit funding system, which the state has used for about 70 years, “provides stability to districts so they can plan ahead,” she said. “A general sentiment in the school districts is that tweaking the current system is preferable to throwing it out and going with something that is totally new.”

The stability Bunting refers to rests in the way the unit system translates the count of students in specific categories, either by grade level or special need, into funding for districts to hire specific numbers of teachers and administrators. Reform advocates note that the system does not provide weighted funding for low-income students and English-language learners and that, by creating hiring mandates, it limits districts’ flexibility to direct funds toward their own special needs.

Another reform issue that could draw attention in the General Assembly this year is the possibility of consolidation of school districts. The state currently has 19 districts, plus more than 20 charter schools, serving a little more than 137,000 students. State Rep. Earl Jaques, a Democrat from the Bear area, expects consolidation to be discussed in conjunction with WEIC’s proposal to move the Wilmington schools and students served by the Christina School District into the Red Clay Consolidated School District. States with large cities or countywide districts often have more students than all of Delaware’s public schools serve enrolled in a single district.

Education experts, Jaques says, believe that about 22,000 students makes for an ideal-sized district. By that standard, Delaware should have six or seven districts.

Bunting says she could support a pilot program that would temporarily merge two or more smaller districts to determine whether a consolidation would save money, improve efficiency and, most importantly, provide additional learning opportunities for students.

She notes that some inter-district collaboration is already under way. As an example, she cites the BRINC consortium, a partnership that began in 2012 with the Brandywine, Indian River, New Castle County Vocational-Technical and Colonial districts in an effort to develop technology-oriented blended learning programs. Four more districts have since joined BRINC, whose efforts are paying off not only in the form of new programming but also in savings through bulk purchases of tech gear, she says.

Bunting said she will advocate for continuing two programs initiated by former Gov. Jack Markell: dual-language immersion, which starts kindergarten students on a path that could lead to 13 years of instruction in either Spanish or Chinese; and Career Pathways, a high-school experience that guides students toward jobs in fields with high growth potential and financial rewards, including advanced manufacturing, healthcare, information technology and finance.

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.