Settlement reached in Delaware public school funding case

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The group Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the NAACP of Delaware announced a settlement with Gov.  John Carney in their education equity lawsuit.

Freeman Williams, on behalf of the Delaware State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, said of the settlement: “We are happy that an agreement has occurred between the state of Delaware, the NAACP and Delawareans for Educational Opportunity. This agreement has the potential to provide greater instructional program equity and equal education opportunities for disadvantaged students within Delaware’s public school system.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2018, claimed that the state had for many years been aware of deficiencies in the educational resources provided to low-income students, students with disabilities, and students who are English learners, with those groups performing lowest in state testing data and other metrics such as high school graduation.

The state operates with a set per-pupil funding formula that is decades old and is used in a shrinking number of states. Critics have claimed the formula enriches districts with growing enrollment and penalizes poorer districts with old buildings and fewer students.

Laster had earlier ruled that the state needs to change its property tax assessment practices that are also seen as a factor in the inequities.

See decision below:

Click to access judgereviewed_73825397_settlement-stipulation-and-order-final-.pdf

The agreement requires the governor to seek legislation bringing new financial commitments and structural changes to the way that Delaware serves disadvantaged students. If the legislation is not approved, the case would go back to Vice Chancellor Travis Laster.

“It’s important to make clear that both parties viewed this case and these settlement negotiations as an opportunity to make real progress for Delaware’s children,” said Carney. “This is a path forward to support our most disadvantaged students and families – and one that will help close the persistent achievement gap in our schools.

‘Our work is just getting started’

“But our work is just getting started,” Carney stated. “The General Assembly will need to consider these changes as part of its regular budget process in Dover. I look forward to discussions with legislators. Delaware’s General Assembly has supported increased investments in public education over the last four years and I believe legislators of both parties will see the merit in this proposal.”

Some of the  changes listed in the agreement are:

  • $25 million in Opportunity Funding, which was instituted on a temporary basis after the lawsuit was underway, used to enhance services and provide additional resources to English learners and low-income students, will become permanent and more than double to $60 million by the 2024-2025 school year. After that, the $60 million will increase proportionally with student growth.
  • Opportunity Funding resources will be allocated specifically to the schools serving English language learners and low-income students, in proportion to the number of those students at each school. $5 million of these funds will be reserved for mental health and reading supports in schools with the highest concentrations of low-income and English learner students.
  • Funding dedicated to basic special education students in Kindergarten through 3rd grade to equal funding currently in place for basic special education students in grades 4-12 by the 2023-2024 school year.
  • By the 2023-2024 school year, the Early Childhood Assistance Program, which funds preschool programs for low-income families, will double its funding from $6.1 million to $12.2 million.
  • A $4 million annual commitment to support enhanced teacher recruitment and retention in high-needs schools beginning in the 2022-2023 school year.
  • An ombudsperson program will be adopted to assist individual students and families in resolving disputes or complaints concerning disparate discipline, inequitable access to school programs, and different or unfair treatment.
  • School districts seeking voter approval for capital construction and major renovations will be required to distribute an equity statement to explain how the capital project would impact equitable distributions of new and renovated buildings within the district.
  • The State will hire an independent organization to complete a holistic assessment of the Delaware public school finance system by January 2024, which shall consider funding levels, revenue mechanisms, equity, and efficiency.

Access to a quality education

“In 2015, while serving as Chair of the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee, WEAC received input from thousands of Delawareans up and down the state – parents, lawmakers, educators, community partners, politicians alike,” stated  Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University. “That input continued when WEAC morphed into the commission. At that time, not one person said that the last 60 years of K12 education for students from economically distressed communities was sustainable,  appropriate, or fair. The settlement reached today proves the point and represents a principled commitment to what I believe is a fundamental American right — every child’s access to a quality education.  In the spirit of the indomitable Louis L. Redding, Chancellor Collins Seitz, and many more, may we forever be compelled to a higher purpose and greater sense of responsibility for our fellow citizens – particularly the most vulnerable among us.”

“Carney’s decision to seek additional funding for the education of disadvantaged children instead of continuing the court battle is very welcome. Additional education funding will change the lives of children now, and improve the economy and wellbeing of Delawareans up and down the state when those children become adults,” said Richard Morse, senior counsel at Community Legal Aid Society.

The plaintiffs now await further proceedings on the county track of this case, to determine the timing and manner of an appropriate remedy for the counties’ property tax assessment system, that the court ruled in May violates the Delaware Constitution and state law.

DEO and the NAACP  were represented by the national law firm Arnold & Porter, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware and the Community Legal Aid Society.

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