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Settlement of Delaware education suit promises historic changes


Jeanne Kuang Natalia Alamdari   | Delaware News Journal
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Historic change to Delaware's education system is one step closer.

Gov. John Carney and civil rights groups settled a lawsuit that accused Delaware education officials of sending more money to schools with affluent children than it does to schools with high concentrations of children living in poverty.  

The settlement kicks the issue to the General Assembly, which for two decades has not implemented state commissions’ suggestions to formally allocate more funding for low-income students, English language learners and students with disabilities.

The plaintiffs wrote in their complaint that schools with high concentrations of those students struggle to afford enough staff to meet the children's needs. 

The potentially landmark case in Delaware Chancery Court sought to have the state’s school funding system ruled unconstitutional, with civil rights groups arguing state officials knowingly fail to give all children an adequate education.

INITIAL FILING: Civil rights groups sue Delaware over education funding for low-income, disadvantaged students

They cited figures showing disadvantaged students are scoring far below state standards on state assessments

The settlement

In the settlement, reached close to three years after the lawsuit was first filed by Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the Delaware NAACP, Carney agreed to make a number of budgetary proposals to the General Assembly — mainly, changing Delaware law to make weighted school funding permanent. 

The case had been scheduled to go to trial next month.

“While we were not able to get everything we wanted in this settlement, it does provide support for children that is desperately needed in Delaware’s education system,” said Jea Street of Delawareans for Educational Opportunity, who is also a New Castle County councilman, in a news release. 

Weighted funding takes into account additional needs and disadvantages of low-income and other students. Under the state’s current “unit count” system, school districts receive state funds based on enrollment numbers. Schools with high concentrations of low-income students tend to need more supports like reading specialists and counseling staff, but they do not receive the additional funding to cover those supports. 

At the time the lawsuit was filed, Delaware was one of just four states that did not give additional funds for English language learners and one of 15 that did not provide additional funds for educating low-income children, plaintiffs said.

LAWSUIT: Delaware schools are leaving children in poverty behind

Carney first proposed Opportunity Grants in 2018, as a means of offering schools additional funding for high-poverty and English learners. The most recent round of Opportunity Funding, announced as the lawsuit was winding its way toward trial, would be doled out to schools over the course of three years, but was not formally written into law. 

EXTRA FUNDING: Gov. John Carney proposes expanding Opportunity Funding to $75 million

Under the settlement, Carney must propose that the General Assembly make Opportunity Funding permanent by 2023. By 2025, the state should grow the pot of money from $35 million to $60 million. Schools must report how that money is being spent annually. 

The General Assembly will also be asked to enact legislation starting in 2023 to expand funding for special education students in kindergarten through third grade. Currently, state funding covers only students fourth grade and up. 

In a news release, Carney called the settlement "an opportunity to make real progress for Delaware’s children."

A political challenge

Success of the settlement depends on the state Legislature. Some advocates for low-income students have accused that body of lacking the political will to funnel more money to students in need — and formalize it into law.

For decades, state-formed commissions have issued report after report outlining the changes needed to improve Delaware schools. Most recently in 2016, the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission made the case for redistricting in New Castle County, where city of Wilmington students are split across five school districts. The commission suggested establishing weighted funding and property tax reassessment.

The General Assembly failed to implement the commission’s key recommendations. The push to restructure Wilmington schools is again being discussed in the Redding Consortium, a similar state-formed working group.    

With state revenues having plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, it may be even harder to pass additional spending. 

But Carney’s agreement to back the proposals — and a Statehouse likely to be made up increasingly of more left-wing Democrats — gives advocates some hope.

Carney, in a news release, stated he believes "legislators of both parties will see the merit in this proposal."

The weight of a court settlement and the costly threat of further litigation may also help push the proposals through. 

In Washington, one of numerous states targeted in a similar school funding lawsuit, the state Supreme Court fined the state $100,000 each day it failed to enact a funding system that would satisfy justices’ ruling that the government fully fund its schools in line with the state constitution.

Delaware officials initially responded to the lawsuit by arguing school funding was a political issue up to lawmakers and said they had fulfilled the state constitution’s requirement of providing only a “general and efficient” system of public schools. 

CHANCERY JUDGE: Politics won't keep me from lawsuit on education funding

Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster, in setting the state for a trial, rejected those arguments two years ago, ruling that the constitution does require schools to provide an adequate education. 

He also separated the second half of the lawsuit, filed against the state’s three counties over their lack of a comprehensive revaluing of all the properties in their jurisdictions since three to four decades ago. 

FULL STORY: Delaware's unequal property tax system on trial

The plaintiffs argued the lack of a reassessment forced school districts to use old property values to raise local taxes for their portion of school funding, locking them into a cycle of regularly and often unsuccessfully asking residents for tax increases to keep up with costs.

That portion went to trial last year, and in May, Laster ruled the counties had violated the state constitution. A debate over how the counties should fix it remains pending before the judge.

NOW WHAT:Delaware's property tax system ruled unconstitutional. 

The settlement also requires: 

  • The creation of an educational ombudsperson. Each county will have a program to assist students and families. The family advocates will focus on resolving disputes concerning discipline disparities, inequities in school access and unfair treatment of students.
  • Forming an Early Childhood Assistance Program. By fiscal year 2024, the governor’s budget will include at least $12.2 million to make early childhood education more accessible. 
  • Allocations for teachers in high needs schools. The governor’s 2023 budget must include at least $4 million to support teacher recruitment and retention in high-needs schools. Currently, high-needs schools tend to be staffed by teachers with less than five years of experience. 
  • An independent funding assessment. By January 2024, the state should assess total funding levels and how education revenue is raised and distributed. The assessment should also make recommendations for improvements to equity and efficiency. However, the assessment will not obligate any action from the state. 
  • Changing how the Department of Education funds school construction. School districts seeking funding for construction must offer an “equity statement,” outlining the demographic information of the students who will attend the new facility. The statement should include how a construction project would affect the equitable distribution of new buildings throughout a district. 

Contact Jeanne Kuang at jkuang@delawareonline.com. Contact Natalia Alamdari at nalamdari@delawareonline.com.