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Interview with Gov. Carney: Education funding

Delaware Public Media

Just about a month ago, Gov. John Carney delivered his State of the State address and unveiled his budget plan for Fiscal Year 2021.

They helped define the governor’s priorities for the coming year in a variety of areas.

This week, Gov. Carney visited the Delaware Public Media studios to talk a bit more in-depth about some of those priorities and other issues.In part 1 of the interview this week, we focus on education and funding for schools in the First State.


Tom Byrne: Let's start with education, you've been visiting schools across the state recently, looking at how opportunity funding is being used on the ground to tackle a variety of issues from assisting low income and English language learners, mental health supports, behavior health, pre-K registration. From your perspective are they having the impact you'd hope they'd have, this funding?

Gov. John Carney: Well, let's first talk about it and think about what the objective is, and we have really three simple objectives and one of things I want to do and, told the people Delaware I would do if elected governor, was to really kind of focus our energies in public education. And we have three big objectives. 

One is to make sure that every child can read at grade level by grade three. Because you learn to read from preschool to grade three and then you read to learn the rest of your academic career, so if you're not reading at grade level by third grade you're going to struggle along the way and we actually have a long way to go with respect to that.=

Then secondly, an particularly since math is increasingly important in the world we live in, and science and the jobs of the future are going to be based so much in math and science, is to have that middle school math proficiency as an objective.  So we've got math coaches in to focus on that. What's interesting to me is I ask the children all the time "What's your favorite subject?", and so many kids today will say, "Math" which I think is not the way it's always been, but that makes me feel good,

And then lastly our third big objective is to make sure every student graduates from high school either ready to go into the work force productively, and we have the pathways program that is grown is something the Gov. Markell start it's really been quite effective and quite necessary or a graduate ready to go into higher education to Delaware State University, University of Delaware, Delaware Tech, Wesley college or wherever they might go and they're ready to go, and they're proficient to go and they don't need remedial classes we hear a lot about that from each of our higher eds.

So if you think about those as the overall objectives and then you ask yourself, “How are we doing?” You find out we're doing okay with some student populations but not nearly as well with particularly children that come from disadvantaged backgrounds and English learners. So, I've put a focus on additional funding for the schools principals and teachers to really lean in to making sure that those children have an equal educational opportunity in our state and are able to be successful and that's where Opportunity Funding comes into it. So, it's a big priority for me and for us as a state. I've been very pleased with what I'm seeing, every district, every school, every principal has a little bit different approach to it and it meets the needs I think of their student populations. But we'll have to see, I mean, one of the things that was important with the whole effort was to create a committee to evaluate the programs and make sure that they're actually having some impact.

Byrne: Is that-- I guess the big question going for then, is this opportunity funding going to go far enough in    terms of not just the amount, but also in terms of the permanence of what it produces? I guess in short, is this just maybe the start of what needs to be done to deliver long term education funding solution for schools across the state?

Gov. Carney: Well, it's certainly the start of new resources to achieve that objective, for sure. We don't have that today although principals and superintendents can use their local money and the state resources. We're not an underfunded education system in Delaware, we rank pretty highly among states in terms of the per student funding for those-- for education, but we do not target resources specifically other than federal title one moneys for our disadvantaged students. So, it is the start in that respect. Teachers and principals have been working on it over the years but this is the start of it adding additional resources specifically for those populations. I think the key is to really focus on what works and that's why the evaluation subcommittee is so important to look at what's working across our state.

Byrne: I do want to ask - there is a possibility that the future of funding education the state is something that could be imposed upon the state by the courts. There's two lawsuits right now revolving around funding, [funding] inequity and property tax assessments at the county level how they impact funding. How much do those looming cases factor in your administration's thinking about what's next for funding, beyond Opportunity Funding in Delaware?

Gov. Carney: It doesn't factor into my thinking at all. Frankly, you know, I thought about what we needed--I've been thinking about what we need to do in public education for the last twenty years after being elected lieutenant governor in the year 2000. We really focused in those days that was just when the accountability standards were having a real impact and we decided to take a look at the schools that were successful and we created a program that we called, "Models of Excellence in Education.”  So, it is really looking at just what we're talking about, different programs and districts and schools that seem to have it working, and in particular looking at the proficiency achievement levels for low income students, minority students because we hear all the time about the achievement gap or the opportunity gap, as I like to call, which is where the Opportunity Funding language comes from. For me, that was always the focus. We have, as I said, so when I ran for office,  I talked a lot about simplifying things. Let's not change the test again, let's not change the standards again,  Let's really hunker down and figure out how do we get every student where they needed to be a third grade reading, middle school math, and the high school graduation and so we're really leaning into that.

With respect to the case itself, you know, the court will make its decision on the issues that are before the court. As I said, we if you look at the spending and we have to look per student now built by virtue of the new federal legislation, you'll see that with significant amount of resources goes to the students that were talking about so we'll see how the judge looks at that.

Byrne: Is there a sense though that there may be a need for further, deeper conversation, not just over the issues we've talked about before, but also we’ve talked about growing enrollment at schools and growing special needs enrollment, which also put some pressure on the education funding system as well, right?

Gov. Carney: Absolutely, it's something that very few people really know about. And I've learned, just becoming governor, two years ago we had 208 new units. That means that we had - however many students, make up a unit, fifteen students per unit or something like that - but two hundred of those units were Special Ed units, to your point. Which means the student population in Special Ed units is growing much faster than the rate of regular education students.  So what happens is you get more resources for those special education students. The more complex their needs, the more revenue you get - if it's an autistic child or child with severe learning challenges. As a state, back to your question about resources, you know we struggle to keep up with just new students coming in a particularly students-- high need students to meet their obligations. This year, in a budget that we just presented to the General Assembly the number associated with just the new students projective from last year was forty million dollars. That's a pretty big number.  When you add that into what we're doing, we're talking about significant resources just to keep up with the student population and a lot of that, as you say accurately, is because of larger percentages of students with special needs.

Byrne: You mentioned earlier the local funding piece of it—and I'm curious, there have been some other ideas floated in the legislature about that piece of it, specifically surrounding the referendum process. It seems in recent years almost every district that goes to referendum fails at least once before it ultimately, maybe, succeeds and there has been discussion about allowing districts to raise taxes small amount without referendum on the operating side. Is something like this something that should be more seriously considered to kind of help, in this kind of puzzle the putting together for funding, to take some pressure off the districts and having them have to put a lot of resources and energy into basically having to campaign to get the money they need?

Gov. Carney: As you well know Tom, it's been an issue that's been talked about for years and years –almost as long as almost as I've been in public service.  There's just not a lot of support out there for doing away with referendum, and not surprisingly not much support for taking away from people the ability to vote on whatever the public policy issue might be. That's kind of the way democracy works. So going back to our focus, which is on Opportunity Funding, our objective will be to in some ways replace what would otherwise be covered by local property taxes with state funding and that's the approach that that were taking, as opposed to trying to figure out a different way to do referendum for local operating budgets. And I would observe, as you probably know, that capital referendum much more successful, because it is something that people can look at--

Byrne: It's tangible.

Gov. Carney: It's tangible, and it shows you're physically-- the commitment -- and we have a brand new school, brand new high school, Dover, and you know, Bridgeville and--

Byrne: Indian River just got their referendum passed —

Gov. Carney: Indian River, another one. Frankly. the two high schools they had were pretty new when you think about it. But it's much more difficult on the operating side and so our focus on Opportunity Funding and meeting the needs of students with special needs. I do think we have to look at in the long term, and this is something that I wanted to combine internally anyway with Opportunity Funding in the evaluation of it after the three initial years, is Division III, which is equalization funding, which as you know, goes towards the poorer school district property tax value wide.  Districts like Lake Forest and Woodbridge and Laurel and districts like that. Not everybody gets money out of Division III - that's a big, it's almost a hundred million dollars when you compare it to the $20-25 million of opportunity funding gives you an idea of the scale. I think that's an area that we can take a look at because it doesn't-- there is a component in there that relates to local effort in terms of the property tax rate. I think everybody currently meets that effort but you get more state resources so as a result of that and that can be a mechanism to address the issue you've been talking about.

Byrne: I bring up the referendum, in part, because Christina School District is now set a date for its next referendum in June. It has struggled mightily to pass their referendum in recent years and for now is home to Wilmington schools which you have sought to help in this particular budget that you presented with capital funding for one new school in renovating two other buildings. Is there has a worry that that capital spending plan isn't as effective if the district running those schools, is in funding crunch because they can't pass a referendum?

Gov. Carney: Absolutely. The reason that my proposal is for the state to pay the full amount for those school renovations and upgrades is because there’s some uncertainty about what district those schools will be in because of

Byrne: The Redding Consortium is working through that now-

Gov Carney: The Redding consortium and the work that they're doing, important work for sure.  And by the way, you know, under Gov. Markell with the commission that was set up there, the so-called WEIC Commission, recommended that those schools no longer be part of the Christina school district that they go over to Red Clay. It wasn't ultimately approved, but the point is that there's a big question around where those schools should go, should Christina, which is not adjacent to the city of Wilmington, should they still be part of that mix.  And the Redding Commission is going to look at those important questions. From my perspective, there are children in those schools every day, and we need to make sure that they're getting the best education that they can and that's why we developed the memorandum of understanding to assist the [Christina] district, since we don't at the state level have the kind of actual authority or control there, in meeting those student needs, and it has to start with buildings that are up to date. The buildings are in terrible condition. We can discuss or argue whose responsibility that is, but we have a responsibility to make sure that children get what they deserve and then Redding will determine you know we're it all falls that out in the end you won't be able to say as was said before well by Red Clay, “well, we don't want those buildings. We're going to have to fix then.” and that's a fair argument.

Byrne: One final question on education, we saw a Christina board member censured recently for comments suggesting the best thing for some children growing up in high poverty areas would be to remove them from their families as infants and return them when they graduate high school. At the same time Odyssey Charter under fire for board members commenting, jokingly suggesting a build a wall between itself and the dual language charter school neighbor that it actually rents the space to. How much in your opinion do situations like these - involving school leadership - hinder efforts to improve schools in this state, especially in places like Wilmington? And is there any role the state can play in making this conversation a better conversation?

Gov. Carney: Yeah, I think it does hurt our efforts to address the real needs of these students and the populations.  I think what was said in both cases, you know, were unfortunate and insensitive, particularly to the children and their families that were alluded to in both sets of comments. And yes, the state – and state leaders like myself -- can make a difference.  You know, from day one I have said that the children and the city of Wilmington and poor children across our state in Dover and Seaford and Laurel and Milton and Milford, no matter where it is, are just as important and they're not, you know, they're not achieving the levels that we need them to, to be successful in life.  We need to do a better job there.  So yes, there is a moral voice that comes along with the authority of these offices that we hold as a privilege to serve the people of our state and we should provide the leadership.  Sometimes with the frustration of the moment, the frustration of not being able to figure out how to help children... I don't question most people's motives.  I don't know the people as well [that are] involved with the Odyssey situation.  We have worked with Mr. Polaski on the Christina school board. I know that he cares about the children.  It was unfortunate what he said, but we need to be more thoughtful about how we're stereotyping children and families and more thoughtful about saying we have a public obligation to help, make sure those children are successful. We're going to be a better state for it. Every individual is going to be better for it. It's in all of our interests, if you need to look at it that way. We have an obligation to those students and we have an obligation as elected officials to be leaders and to express, you know, kind of a moral authority there.



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