First up, House Bill 161, the Parent Empowerment Savings Account. State Rep. Deb Hudson is talking about the bill. She said it would not be a tidal wave of students that would be able to participate in the program. She said there are only 12 students eligible for the program in Delaware right now. She said the funds would be put on a debit card for parents to choose for whatever education program they wanted for their exceptional child. She said the parents would almost become like a contractor in the state. There are restrictions on what the parent could use the debit card for. WaWa is out, Hudson said.
State Rep. and Chair of the House Education Committee Earl Jaques asked if there is a fiscal note for the bill. Hudson said no. She is explaining the money follows the child. Jaques is saying it could be very labor-intensive for school districts. These funds would only be used from state funds. The local share of funding would stay in the district according to Hudson. She wants the child’s name to stay in the district. State Rep. Sean Matthews asked if this includes all children. She said that was deleted and the description is included in the amendment. Matthews said it seems like this bill would be in conflict with the State Constitution if funds were used in a religious school. Hudson said it could also be used for tutoring and not just a religious school. She said this would stand up in a court of law like it did in Arizona. She didn’t want to write a bill that would wind up in the courts. Matthews is asking if ALEC was the initiator of the legislation. She said no, it was the Goldwater Institute.
State Controller Mike Jackson said the fiscal note is indeterminate based on the small amount of students. He said the impact would be there since much of the state funding goes towards enrollment and affects teacher salaries. She said the districts get to keep the local funding so it evens out. State Rep. Kim Williams asked about the debit card policy with a pre-determined amount of money. She said it isn’t a Visa card. It would be put out by the State Treasurer’s office. It wouldn’t be able to be used at a WaWa according to Hudson since it is illegal. She said there would be accountability behind it. Williams said nothing could stop someone from using the debit card at WaWa. A gentleman with the Goldwater Institute said there are merchant codes on the card that would prevent the user from using the card for non-educational purposes. The card would be rejected if it didn’t match the merchant codes. Williams said the State is already obligated to pay for speech therapists for all students up to age 5. She said this could overlap and would cause problems. Hudson said it is neutral and would be paid from either source. Williams stressed the state already pays for it so why would they make parents pay for it? Williams asked how additional resources would be given to families if funds can be sent to college savings plan. Hudson said she hasn’t read the synopsis lately and she is more focused on K-12 students. The Goldwater Institute gentleman said parents spend the funds based on the resources and additional services needed for each child. Williams asked if a parent could put all the money into a college plan. Hudson said if she were leaving it up to the Delaware Dept. of Education, they would weigh in on the decision.
State Rep. Kevin Hensley said the education of students with disabilities is near and dear to him. He said IDEA is administered by the school districts. He asked how IDEA would be able to factor into this if a student goes to a private school. The Goldwater man said a student would have to already be on an IEP to be able to qualify for the program. Then Hensley asked about the IEP team. Would the IEP team come to an outside school if a parent uses this program. He said in Arizona some parents went back to the district and others did not. He also said there are private providers that can develop the IEPs in Arizona as well. Jaques said private schools don’t have to follow IDEA or even grant IEPs. Goldwater man said the private provider could develop the IEP. State Rep. Deb Heffernan said IDEA provides Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is provided for any student w/a disability up to age 21. She said if FAPE cannot be provided for a student a parent has a legal right to file for due process to have school district fund private education if funds cannot be met at a public school. She said this bill is a voucher system to fund private schools because their enrollment is down 35% in Delaware. She is in opposition to the bill. Hudson said she doesn’t care where the child goes to school. She just wants parents to have a choice on where they send their school in order to meet the needs of the child. She said this is not a voucher system but a savings account. Hudson said she does not agree with the voucher system herself. Heffernan stressed the part about FAPE and that a parent would sue the charter school or district to be able to get FAPE for their child. She said this bill is, her fear, that it will become a voucher system.
Jaques asked about the several mentions of the Delaware DOE in the bill and if she coordinated with them. She said she didn’t and believes they are capable of handling it. Hudson said the DOE would get 3% of the savings account funds for administrative purposes. Jaques said in addition to the student not getting the local funding, now they are getting even less. Williams said the State Treasurer would also get a percentage of funds. Hudson said they would get 3% as well. Williams said we have a system in place where these students get additional funds for their IEPs based on the need. Hudson said it would be determined based on the existing IEP. Williams asked who is going to determine that funding. She said a student could already be in a private school. Hudson said the DOE would determine that. Hudson said she doesn’t visualize a student already in a private school being able to use these funds. Williams said she appreciates the intent of the bill but she is very confused. Hudson stressed the DOE is capable of handling this. If she never met with the DOE how in the world would she be able to determine that? She said the DOE is able to meet the needs of all children. Williams expressed disappointment that collaboration with the DOE didn’t occur. Hudson said she doesn’t mean to give a Smart Alec answer but we institute policy all the time as legislators and then work out the details later. Williams said it is her job to understand the bill and to make sure all the resources are in place.
State Rep. Harvey Kenton asked how many teachers would lose their jobs because of this bill. He said he has family that are teachers and he thinks this is a step to destroy public education. He stressed it is federal and state mandated but he can’t support it. He said all 19 school districts have contacted him and none are in favor of the bill. Matthews said the definition of participating schools is non-governmental school and he is looking at the allowable expenses for the bill. He asked what it means about “allowable curriculum”. He said he never heard of anyone having to buy a curriculum. She said that is more for homeschool students where parents sometimes have to buy a curriculum. Goldwater man said all those expenses don’t have to be bought once a year. Heffernan asked if any other state agencies would be involved in this private school initiative. She said the state and the school districts have the obligation to provide FAPE. She said the DOE can’t get the private school to do anything. Who would the parents sue if a student doesn’t get FAPE at the private school? Would the public school still get sued if they can’t get the private school to do anything? Hudson said the DOE would have to approve the curriculum. Hudson said the DOE would be able to oversee the curriculum at the private school and if it changed they could let the private school know. She fails to realize how public education versus private schools work. Matthews asked if the DOE is currently able to tell private schools what to do? Hudson said no. Matthews said this would expand the DOE’s authority and they don’t have this authority. Matthews asked if the DOE could deny which school a student with disabilities goes to? He looked at several DOE employees who said no. Goldwater man said the object of the language here is to protect the private school autonomy so the DOE can’t change it. Goldwater man said there are a lot of possibilities.
State Rep. Paul Baumbach asked what the Blaine Amendment is. Goldwater man said there are 37-38 states that have language in their constitutions that allow for these programs. Baumbach said the law in Delaware’s constitution would not allow for this bill to be used since we would be breaking the law. Baumbach said:
The State Constitution forbids this legislation so I would recommend the committee not release this bill.
Secretary of Education Godowsky said he would be willing to work with Hudson on the bill but he can’t commit to the resources needed for the bill. Bill Doolittle gave public comment said protections under IDEA are safeguards for our children. He said giving up those safeguards is something that shouldn’t be done. He said if it isn’t choice for everybody, it isn’t choice. He said most parents cannot afford a private school placement even after this savings plan. He said it is not equitable for low-income families. Sandra Spence with the League of Women Voters opposes the bill and said the bill would take more money out of public education. John Marinucci with the DE School Boards Association echoed the previous sentiment and said they don’t support taking more money out of education especially to pay administrative fees. He said they oppose this being tied to a blurring of state and religious schools. He mentioned equalization funds which would affect the fiscal note of the bill.
Mary O’Connell, a teacher at Concord High School, talked about her own son with a disability. She said her son was supported by the Bush School but wasn’t at Carrcroft. She said they were denied the services he needed. Her son’s anxiety level was so high and their psychologist recommended he be removed from the school. He wound up in a regular class with 26 students. Whenever his teacher was out the substitute would call and she would have to pick him up. He is now at the College School and she has never had to pick him up. She stated he is thriving at the school now. She said she is not a strong supporter of inclusion programs. She said public schools cannot always help these students. She is here to support the needs of the students. A young girl who attended a public school but now attends a private school said she doesn’t think she could read at the level she reads at now if she had to go to public school. She gets nervous about testing and public speaking. She attends the College School. Another student who also attends the College School, a bit older than the previous student, said she has dyslexia. She said she learns better in small classrooms. She just started there in January. A public commenter named Laurie Smith said her children attended the Northstar school. She begged for help and she didn’t get it. The mother was very upset. She didn’t qualify for occupational therapy and had to pay out of her pocket. She said the speech therapy her child gets is better than what the public school system is able to give. She said that is where she needs to be able to pay for these services. She said many parents are paying out of pocket for services for their disabled children. She saved money for college for her daughter but she has spent all those funds already. Her daughter is going into 5th grade and she doesn’t know how they can afford the expenses. Another commenter said she has children in the Pilot School who are thriving. She said the small classroom sizes allow for a better environment for her children. She is in favor of this bill. Martha Henley, another commenter, said she is in support of the bill. She hears the concern of private vs. public schools. She said she started out in private schools and that school was not able to meet the needs. She is talking about the costs involved and how students sometimes have to go to more than four years of college. A gentleman who gave public comment said his son doesn’t fit into any category and that the category of FAPE just doesn’t work in public education. A little boy came up to the podium who said “I’m scared”. His mother said her son is autistic and that he attended the Brandywine School District. The teacher said it was not the right place for her child. She had to get an evaluation out of pocket and had to use all their savings. She said this is about the parents and working with the teachers and all the counselors. Her son goes to Centreville now and they are able to accommodate his needs and has a very small class. She said there about 20 kids in Delaware that are intelligent and high-functioning that fit into this category. Another parent said her child’s learning differences are very rare and she is the mom that is always there and is pushing the school to get the services her child needs. She supports this bill and she knows he will do better in a small classroom. She needs to be able to help him and he needs a chance. Cathy Morris said she is in favor of the bill. Her grandson has multiple learning disabilities, a numbers type of dyslexia, attention-deficit, and other disabilities. When he was in public school they were told he chose not to learn. He is now at the College School and repeated 4th grade and has made tremendous strides. He had to get out of the mindset where he felt like he was failing. She wants other parents to be able to have the choice. She wants to transfer him into a vocational school but also have options to have supplemental vocational training or services. Martha Durham with Garnett Valley PTA said she had to move to Garnett Valley to get the services her son married. She spent her whole life in Delaware. Her son has multiple diagnoses. Her son was put into public school and started having suicidal thoughts in weeks. She said Delaware has great schools but there are some kids who just can’t make it. Her son is important to her.
Kevin Carson with Delaware Association of School Administrators and also on behalf of the Delaware State Education Association said the funding mechanisms already in place cause both to stand opposed to the bill.
Jaques put forth a motion to table the bill. 8 in favor. The bill is tabled. Hudson said she wants to continue working on this bill and said it shouldn’t be about well-to-do parents being able to get these kinds of services.
Unfortunately, I had to leave at this point. The meeting didn’t even start until 3:30 or so. I will update or write another article when I find out what happened with the other four bills on the agenda. But I will say this. What I witnessed at this meeting broke my heart. I saw many desperate parents, some spending their entire savings to get their children special education services they should be entitled to by law, speak from the heart today. Whether I agree with the bill or not, it is more painfully obvious than ever that Delaware is not doing the right thing for special needs children. Something has to change…