HB 90 would standardize school choice process and make it more accessible

DOVER – Rep. Kimberly Williams introduced legislation Tuesday providing the first sustentative update to Delaware’s school choice program in 15 years, standardizing the process and helping parents better understand and navigate the system.

The school choice program enables students to attend a school different from their feeder school, whether it is a charter school, a vocational technical school, a different school in the same district or a school in a different district. Currently, Delaware school districts set their own school choice parameters with different criteria and forms for interested students and parents.

A former Red Clay Consolidated School District board member, Rep. Williams said it is important that school districts provide school choice for students, but she knows the process of applying to attend a different school is confusing and challenging.

“I have been incredibly involved in public education in my community as a local PTA president and a school board member, and I constantly hear from parents that this continues to be a very serious issue in Delaware,” said Rep. Williams, D-Stanton. “The system in place now is just so overwhelming and confusing. What you have is each district establishing its own set of criteria, with its own application forms altogether. Some parents don’t even realize this process exists because districts do not publicize the information. This bill will save a lot of parents a lot of headaches by standardizing processes and criteria across all school districts.”

House Bill 90 would create a uniform system across the state and would make the process easier for parents to navigate by:

  • Standardizing application forms and deadlines across traditional, vocational technical and charter schools;
  • Creating the option for parents to submit information through the Department of Education website and requiring districts to hold public information sessions;
  • Eliminating discrimination against choice students by requiring districts to use the same standards for choice students as they do for students in their attendance zone;
  • Eliminating discrimination against students with special educational needs;
  • Specifying the criteria that may be used in reporting capacity and requiring districts to accept choice students until they are at 85 percent of capacity;
  • Creating a task force to explore enrollment preferences at magnet, vocational technical and charter schools and developing recommendations as necessary.

In his 2013 State of the State, Governor Jack Markell said the application process for choice and charter schools has become too burdensome and complicated, with multiple applications and numerous deadlines. In the speech, he said, “Just as we need high-quality career choices for our teachers, we need high-quality school choices for our families. The application process for choice and charter schools has become too burdensome and complicated. I talk to parents with children in multiple schools and they look forward to school choice and charter applications with the same enthusiasm that they have for tax season.”

“This bill will improve parent choice in school selection and un-complicate a process that has been trying for many parents,” Governor Markell said Tuesday. “We want to make it easier for families to apply to multiple schools, understand the strengths of each school and determine what schools are best for their children.”

Currently, one out of four Delaware students utilizes some form of school choice. Approximately ten percent choose schools in their current district, eight percent choose charter schools, five percent choose vocational technical schools and four percent choose schools in different districts.

“School choice is an essential option for Delaware parents and it is important to eliminate the bureaucratic hurdles that make it harder for parents and students to exercise that option,” said Sen. Nicole Poore, D-Barbs Farm, the Senate prime sponsor of the bill. “This bill puts common sense measures, like standardizing school choice paperwork and requiring districts to treat applicants equally, into place.”

Delaware Parent Teacher Association President-Elect Susan Brown said the PTA supports the measure because it would give families access to the best education possible for every child.

"Representative Williams’ proposed legislation embodies the spirit of how choice legislation should benefit Delaware's families,” Ms. Brown said. “Specifically, it would improve parents’ access to choice information, help eliminate discriminatory practices in enrollment, particularly with respect to children with disabilities, and it would provide a solid structure within which stakeholders can work effectively to ensure equity in enrollment options."

Under the bill, the task force, which would include legislators, school administrators, district superintendents, teachers and parents, would be required to issue a final report to the General Assembly by January 31, 2014.

Rep. Williams worked with her local school district, Red Clay Consolidated, to ensure the new process would align with districts’ established programs.

“This revision of the School Choice Code clarifies the guidelines for all schools and makes it easier for parents and students to understand the application process,” said Red Clay Consolidated School District Superintendent Mervin Daugherty. “Representative Williams, once a Red Clay school board member, has a clear understanding and first-hand knowledge of the school choice issues schools that parents face.”

HB 90 has been assigned to the House Education Committee.