The News Journal | by Jonathan Starkey
Democratic leaders have sent a message to Newark Rep. John Kowalko: back off.
House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf has bounced Kowalko, a Democrat who has loudly opposed Gov. Jack Markell’s plan to turn around six Wilmington schools, from the House education committee and stripped his chairmanship of the House Energy committee.
Top House Democrats, who do not tolerate dissent among the ranks, also yanked Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, from the capital budget committee after she mounted and lost a leadership challenge last month to House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst.
Keeley had been co-chair of the powerful joint capital budget committee of the General Assembly before challenging Schwartzkopf for speaker, the chamber’s top post, in 2012.
Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, will chair the education committee for the 148th General Assembly, which begins with a Jan. 13 session. He takes over for Rep. Darryl Scott, a Dover Democrat who left the General Assembly last year.
Jaques called Kowalko’s removal from the education committee a leadership decision, saying “you’ll have to ask the speaker” for reasons behind the move. Neither Schwartzkopf nor Longhurst returned calls seeking comment.
Kowalko has served on the education committee for eight years. He learned in a Saturday afternoon call with Schwartzkopf that he would be off the committee, a move Kowalko called “paramount to an abuse of power.”
Kowalko said Schwartzkopf justified his removal by repeatedly calling Kowalko an “activist” on education issues, suggesting that distracted from his role as a legislator and adversely affected his ability to compromise.
“I concede that he has the right to do this. But his motives for doing this I think are suspect,” Kowalko said, adding that he believes Markell called for his removal. “This is not the end of the discussion. I will not be silenced on behalf of my constituents.”
Kowalko has been an outspoken critic of Markell’s education policy and is not shy about challenging his own leadership in the House. Referencing a plan to remove principals of low-performing schools, Kowalko wrote last month that state education “Secretary Mark Murphy and Gov. Markell are engaged in one of the more disturbing attempts to abuse power that I have ever witnessed as a state legislator.”
In a recent statement to the Christina Board of Education, Kowalko accused Markell and top education officials of “bullying” and a “coercive abuse of power” during discussions on the so-called priority schools in Wilmington.
Kowalko has also clashed with members of his own party, including Markell, over charter school funding, the switch to new standardized testing and a plan to build a data center on the University of Delaware’s STAR campus.
A spokeswoman for Markell said neither the governor nor a member of his staff intervened in the committee assignment process.
Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, who will serve as vice chair of the education committee, only learned the full committee membership on Monday.
“Rep. Kowalko has been a huge supporter of public education for many years,” Williams said. “I am surprised to see he is no longer a member of education committee. We all know his passion for education is relentless.”