News this week of Gov. John Carney agreeing to a settlement over the state’s ancient school funding formula is a reason for optimism.
Since the decision earlier this year will eventually lead to a change in property tax assessments, it has been clear for a while the state was on the losing side of the lawsuit brought about by a coalition of organizations that argue the system falls sort of the guarantee of equal educational opportunity.
Counties have dragged their feet on property assessments due to the cost and the potential for outraged taxpayers who may have been paying too little or too much. Those filing the suit claimed the practices hammered less affluent areas and limited funding for schools.
But back to the settlement.
The current formula hands a set amount of state aid to a district or charter school on a per-student basis.
It’s a formula abandoned long ago by many states since it does not consider income disparities among districts and the need for added help for students facing poverty challenges.
The corporate business community has become increasingly uncomfortable with the formula as evidence points to the inequities holding back efforts to improve overall student performance.
In Delaware’s case, the formula sent growth into hyperdrive in areas like Middletown, where a growing property tax base allowed for the construction of new schools with minimum pain. Families can afford $350,000-plus homesflocked to the area, thanks to new buildings and well-funded enrichment programs.
Things were tougher in older areas with low and moderate-income residents.
Parents in Christiana, by far the state’s most troubled school district, dug deep and approved a property tax referendum to stave off potential disaster in the form of layoffs and deep cuts. Residents in other districts with little or no population growth also approved referendum votes despite tax hikes.
As Carney noted, the option was to continue to litigate the issue or hammer out a settlement.
Perhaps anticipating that the day of reckoning was coming, the administration and Legislature previously approved funding aimed at disadvantaged students.
If the General Assembly goes along, added funding would be locked in place, no small matter during a pandemic-driven recession. Otherwise, the matter goes back to Chancery Court.
The settlement is a start. More work remains to be done, and progress may be painfully slow in a pandemic and post-pandemic environment.
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