Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lawmakers weigh in on education funding report recommending increased spending, referendum reform

Delaware Public Media

An independent review of Delaware’s education funding system from the American Institutes for Research recommends significantly higher investment in schools, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have concerns.

State Rep. and House Education Committee member Nnamdi Chukwuocha (D-Wilmington) says his grievances lie with investing anywhere from the suggested $590 million to $1 billion more in education before fixing the funding structure.

“We have a broken system and trying to fix it or put more money into it now, to me is – we’re just doing ourselves a disservice," he says.

Delaware currently utilizes a unit-count approach to funding public education, which consists of counting the number of students enrolled at a school and then converting them into "units," which is the state resource needed to support a classroom such as teacher salaries and building/energy costs.

The report shows Delaware marginally spends more on schools serving higher proportions of low-income students, English leaners (ELs) and students with disabilities, but this correlation is largely based on higher spending for students with disabilities.

The report notes there is a "clear negative relationship between teacher experience and the percentage of low-income students in schools, which results in lower average salaries and less spending on teacher salaries per student in schools with high percentages of low-income students."

Additionally, the report says, "Although more is spent in schools with higher percentages of low-income students, students with disabilities, and ELs, the additional spending is not sufficient to meet the needs of those students. There is a strong negative relationship between student outcomes and the percentage of low-income students served by schools, indicating that those students are not being provided an equal opportunity for academic success."

Chukwuocha agrees with this sentiment, arguing the unit funding structure does not allow for equitable distribution of funds to students who need it.

"The system itself is geared toward teachers. The units generate teachers, and nowhere does it take into consideration the needs of our students and the complexity of high-needs students. It's a simple equation that the model just doesn't fit, and the more we try to put a band-aid on it and to add this pseudo-weight — the more we just make it more complex, the more it strays from meeting the needs in a more streamline and transparent way," he adds.

State Sen. and Senate Education Committee member Eric Buckson (R-Dover South) agrees that enough funds should be available "to help all children learn" and being equitable is "more than reasonable," but he believes the current system may be able to be fixed instead of completely overhauled.

“Maybe it’s a tweak, maybe it’s an adjustment to the current system that we have, versus throwing it away in its entirety, and the next thing you know, you end up with a model that's worse than the one you got rid of," Buckson says.

Buckson is also hesitant that spending more dollars will increase student outcomes in the way the state wants.

"If I thought the $500 million to $1 billion was going to get at what we're getting after, which is a better outcome for our students, then I would seriously consider it, but I think we're putting the cart before the horse... We've got a lot of problems in our school districts that can be fixed that don't require more funding," he adds.

Buckson says he believes the problem is policy, structure, accountability and expectations within schools.

"You put accountability and structure back into the classrooms early on so that students that are there to learn actually can learn and not be disrupted by bad policy that allows students that are dealing with other issues to remain in classrooms and slow down the learning process and hold the teachers up from moving forward."

This idea is something Buckson hoped to further look into in his bill establishing the Classroom Behavior and School Discipline Task force. Buckson's bill was defeated in the Senate, but Democratic legislators passed a similar version of the bill creating the Student Behavior and School Climate Task Force, which passed in the House on Tuesday.

The report also recommended the state develop a more predictable and stable funding model, which included the suggestion of allowing schools to implement the tax rates necessary to raise the local share without going to referendum.

The report notes many states only require referendums when proposed increases exceed limits set by legislation, while Delaware requires a vote in all cases.

Chukwuocha says he is "100% behind referendum reform," saying it’s unfair that traditional school districts have to fight and lobby for a general increase.

“It’s something I intently support – the need for change and us being able to find a different way to allow our schools to generate the revenue that’s needed to meet the needs of our students.”

Buckson on the other hand believes local tax payers have the right to vote on these increases.

"Without that accountability, I do fear that maybe some of the districts are less responsive to the communities they serve," he says.

Gov. John Carney is recommending a $10 million funding increase next fiscal year to enhance services for English learners and low-income students, but legislators will have to decide if the current funding structure needs a closer look going forward.

Before residing in Dover, Delaware, Sarah Petrowich moved around the country with her family, spending eight years in Fairbanks, Alaska, 10 years in Carbondale, Illinois and four years in Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2023 with a dual degree in Journalism and Political Science.
Related Content