The state’s budget is shrinking. So how do you slash spending for public education and simultaneously establish world-class schools?
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John Taylor knows this all too well. In addition to his role as executive director of the Delaware Public Policy Institute, Taylor is senior vice president of the State Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Vision 2015 implementation committee. “We’re talking about a sea change here in the way our schools are run,” he says. “These are not the types of things that can easily come about. But then again, if I thought it couldn’t be done at all, I’d pack it up and go do something else.”
But he isn’t moving on to something else, because Taylor knows how important a well-educated population is to the success of his state. “Businesses can’t survive without good people, and if students are coming out of school unprepared for the workforce, that’s just not very good for business,” Taylor says. “If there’s lousy education in Delaware, it affects the quality of life, and that makes it more difficult to attract good people to come here and work.”
So right now it’s a one-step-at-a-time march across a very foggy landscape. Practically speaking, school districts across the state are devising action plans that will allow them to make financial decisions as soon as specific cuts are announced. At Indian River, for example, Bunting says her team is looking at future budget scenarios in large chunks.
“First we decide how we’ll respond if we lose $500,000. Then we move on to the next tier. What about $1 million?” she says. “We’re doing this now because when the decision comes, we’re going to have to move fast. And I’m the kind of person who likes to plan ahead.”
These plans involve reducing spending wherever possible, like working toward totally paperless documentation and diminishing the size of events like Teacher of the Year receptions—anything that can be reduced without cutting faculty and thus increasing class size.
“You only have so much fat you can trim off,” says Bunting. “And we don’t have a lot of fat.”
Everyone has his or her magic wand change initiative, that one element of public education policy deemed most crucial in moving through tough transitional times. For Taylor, it’s bolstering early childhood education. For Schoenhals, it’s changing the way Delaware distributes its public education dollars. For Bunting, it’s keeping as many teachers in the classroom as possible. And for Governor Jack Markell, it’s restoring parents’ overall faith in the system.
“I talk to a lot of young parents who say they’re faced with a dilemma,” says Markell. “They say, ‘Do I stay in Delaware and send my child to a private school, or do I move to Pennsylvania to send my child to a public school up there?’ One of the ways I’m going to measure the success of my administration is how many fewer of those conversations I’m having when I leave office compared to when I got here.”
Markell is keenly aware of the difficulties Delaware’s public education system faces, and he knows the looming 2010 budget is going to force administrators to make some very difficult and unprecedented decisions. Moreover, during his 2008 gubernatorial campaign, Markell stressed his desire to avoid faculty layoffs as a solution to a state budget shortfall. “Let me be clear,” he said in April, “as governor, I will not cut the education budget in ways that force teacher layoffs or take necessary resources out of the classroom.”
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