Advocates and state settle educational equity lawsuit
The suit seeking to reshape education funding in the First State will not go to trial. The state and education advocates announced a settlement Monday.
The 2018 lawsuit claimed the state fails to provide an adequate education to all students because its funding system supports well-off children better than disadvantaged ones. Delaware is among a handful of states that do not provide regular weighted funding to schools for English language learners and low-income students.
Monday’s settlement comes just weeks before the case was set to go to trial.
Gov. John Carney agreed to seek legislative approval to increase and make permanent Opportunity Funding—the state’s temporary weighted funding for English Language Learners and low-income students Carney spearheaded last year.
The deal increases that funding to $60 million by the 2024-2025 school year and automatic increases tied to enrollment will occur after Fiscal Year 2025. Schools will also be required each year to report how the money is spent.
“Delaware’s current educational resource allocation system does not recognize the additional needs of children living in poverty and English learners. That system is outdated and inequitable,” said Karen Lantz, legal and policy director at the ACLU of Delaware in a statement Monday. “Our expectation is that this settlement will begin systemic changes that result in a fundamental shift in how resources are allocated, so every student in Delaware can get the education they deserve.”
Under the settlement, Carney will also seek more funding in other areas.
He will propose budgets to the General Assembly for Fiscal Years 2023, 2024 and 2025 that include an additional $4 million to support “enhanced teacher recruitment and retention” in high-needs schools.
Carney will also seek approval to double funding for the Early Childhood Assistance Program, which funds preschool programs for low-income families, to $12.2 million for 2023-2024 school year.
Funding for special education students in grades K-3 would increase to equal current funding in place for special education students in grades 4-12 by the 2023-2024 school year.
The settlement also requires an ombudsman program to help individual students and families resolve complaints around “disparate discipline, inequitable access to school programs, and different or unfair treatment."
The settlement also calls for an independent holistic assessment of Delaware's public school system financing by January 2024. It must consider total funding levels and how revenue is raised and distributed at the state and local level. It will make recommendations for equity and efficiency, but will not obligate the state to take any action.
Lawmakers will need to consider some of the changes during their budget process next year. If by the end of July 2021, the Delaware General Assembly does not pass the legislation outlined in the settlement, the plaintiffs may ask to take the case to trial.
Carney said in a statement Monday that both parties viewed the case and settlement as an “opportunity to make real progress for Delaware’s children.”
New Castle County Councilman and longtime education advocate Jea Street said in a statement Monday that the plaintiffs did not get everything they wanted in the settlement.
“While this settlement is reasonable today, I must make it clear that the battle for fairness in public school education in Delaware is not over and advocacy for improvement will continue,” he said.
Daniel Walker is executive director of the education nonprofit Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now, which was not involved in the suit. Walker says he’s glad Gov. Carney "recognized the importance" of education funding. But he calls the settlement a “band aid” that doesn’t fix what he sees as a lack of flexibility in the unit-count system state education funding is based on.
“What we don’t solve and what we don’t fix with the continuation of the unit system is for a principal, for instance, to say I don’t need this reading specialist as outlined, I need two librarians, or I need another full math teacher,” he said.
Walker says he is also concerned about the sustainability of the funding outlined in the settlement, and questions the “urgency” the Governor's office feels. He notes that the independent assessment of Delaware's school financing system is not due until January, 2024.
“Though I know it takes time to gear up and it takes time to find someone, we’re still kind of pushing fundamental overhauls down the line to another administration,” Walker said.
The second part of the suit centered on the county property tax assessments is on hold for now.
On May 8, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster ruled that the property tax assessment used in all three counties as the basis for the collection of local school taxes violates the state constitution because the last assessments conducted in the counties -- in 1974 in Sussex, 1983 in New Castle and 1987 in Kent – are so old as to be unreliable.
The next step in the case is to determine a remedy. Laster had asked both sides in the case to set up a briefing schedule. Instead, the county defendants, with no opposition from the plaintiffs, requested a stay in the matter until Oct. 31.
By postponing further action in the case until Oct. 31, the counties say they will have a better handle on their financial situations in order to discuss the impact of the reassessment that they believe is inevitable.
This story has been updated.