DOVER, Del. (AP) — Gov. Jack Markell said Thursday that he wants to increase pay for Delaware teachers and hinted that tax increases scheduled to begin expiring later this year should stay in place in order to help pay for his spending plans.
In his State of the State speech, Markell said improving Delaware schools is important to helping Delaware meet the demands of "the world we now live in."
He called for strengthening standards for entering the teaching profession, raising starting teacher pay, and improving pay for teachers in high-need schools and critical subjects.
"If we're to have the best education system in the country, we can't continue to have the lowest starting and average teacher salaries in our region," Markell said. "We can change this without substantial new resources by re-examining our pay structure, which hasn't been substantively changed in decades."
In a speech short on specifics, Markell also called for more mental health workers in middle schools, noting that only three middle schools in Delaware have full-time professionals responsible for the mental health needs of students.
"That's a huge gap in our care for adolescents," said Markell, who proposed a tenfold increase in the number of trained mental health personnel in middle schools.
In the wake of last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the governor also proposed speeding up implementation of a law passed last year that requires every Delaware public school to have a state-of-the-art safety plan in place within five years. Markell said the timetable should be reduced to two years.
Markell, who warned about unsustainable growth in Medicaid costs in his two previous State of the State speeches but supports expansion of Delaware's Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act, barely mentioned health care this year. He called for "new payment models" that reward great outcomes, encourage healthy behavior and reduce costs.
While saying his administration will continue to look for ways to save taxpayer money, Markell said it would not compromise on public safety and turn its back "on our most vulnerable citizens."
"And while we want to keep taxes low, and Delaware's are attractive, we should not shortchange our children and their future to pay for unaffordable tax cuts today," he said, a reference to extending tax increases that were imposed as a temporary fiscal measure in 2009 and are scheduled to start expiring later this year. Expiration of the tax cuts could cost about $37 million in the first year and almost $181 million in the following year.
"I think we'll probably wind up keeping them in place," House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, said of the 2009 tax increases, adding that they could be extended with some modifications.
Republican Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle said efforts to improve public schools should not be limited to better pay for teachers but should include making it easier to get rid of ineffective ones.
"That's something we should look at it if we're trying to improve education," he said. "They're protected under the current structure."