Key takeaways from the Senate Committee’s hearing on amendments to reorganize the Department of Education

On Tuesday (4/25) the Senate Education Committee held a public hearing on amendments to HB 356, a bill to establish a committee to study state education funding. The hearing was scheduled after there was significant public outcry over an amendment introduced by Senator John Reagan (R-Deerfield) that would have precipitated dramatic changes to the Department of Education. At the start of the hearing, Senator David Watters (D-Dover) introduced two new amendments (consolidated here) for the public and the committee to consider. The committee then heard public testimony over the three amendments (Senator Reagan’s original amendment and the two new amendments from Senator David Watters). The public can view the testimony on Reaching Higher’s Facebook page here.

After the public testimony concluded, the committee acted on the legislation. The committee voted down Senator Regan’s original amendment 3-2. The committee then adopted both of Senator Watters’ amendments 4-1 and passed the full bill as amended 4-1. The bill as amended will now go to the full Senate for a vote on May 4th. Here is what the bill as amended proposes to do:

The bill establishes a committee to study state education funding and report on its findings by November 2018 (this was the original purpose of HB 356). The two amendments from Senator Watters do the following:

  1. Create a study committee to look at the organizational structure of the department of education and the duties and responsibilities of the commissioner of education. The study committee will consist of one senator appointed by the Senate President and four representatives appointed by the Speaker of the House. The study committee will report on its findings and on any proposed legislation on or before November 1, 2017.
  2. Empower the commissioner to, with the advice of the state board of education, and in consultation with the deputy commissioner and the division directors, transfer or assign functions, programs, or services within or between any division.

What are the takeaways with respect to reorganization?

First, there will be a study committee established and while it does not have a requirement to hold town halls, this committee will create a forum for public input. The importance of having a transparent process that allowed for robust public input was raised multiple times during the public hearing. If the bill passes and a committee is created, there will be opportunities for the public to weigh in, both on process and on ideas for the study committee to consider.

Second, the amendments do not confer any sort of sweeping, new authority to the commissioner. The commissioner will be able to make adjustments to the organizational structure so as to ensure compliance with existing laws – a point made by Commissioner Edelblut and members of the Senate Education Committee. The commissioner will need to present any ideas for transfers or adjustments to the state board of education, which will help ensure that any changes will be made in a transparent process (the state board cannot overrule the commissioner, but it does provide an opportunity for the public to be made aware of any changes that are happening at the department). The amendments also necessitate consultation with the deputy commissioner and division directors.

Reaching Higher will continue to follow this bill through the legislative session and provide updates as it moves forward. Please let us know if you have any questions.