Courts again asked to define ‘adequate’ school funding
(Del.) Gov. John Carney and legislative leaders–all Democrats–will begin 2019 with the unlikely problem of having to defend an 80-year-old school funding formula that does not set aside additional funds to support at-risk students.
The funding system, targeted by a lawsuit filed last year, is largely to blame for the poor performance of Delaware public schools, advocates said.
Last year, 64 percent of students from low-income families in grades three through eight did not meet state standards for English language arts, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware. For students with disabilities, the number increases to 85 percent, and for English learners, it grows to 86 percent.
“This funding system was built for another time, decades before technology and modern approaches transformed our classrooms,” said Maria Matos, an education activist, in an op-ed published last month by Delaware Online.
“It’s a system that is simply not designed to give every child a fair shot at a quality education,” she wrote. “And it’s disconnected from the reality that low-income students–nearly 40 percent of our student population–and English learners, the fastest growing population in the state, arrive at school with a unique set of needs.”
In yet another example of the courts being asked to define the adequacy of school support, the Delaware suit claims the state has for years systematically underfunded the state’s poorest districts in favor of the wealthiest.
Remarkably, attorneys representing the governor and his administration has thus has not challenged the plaintiff’s core assertion. Instead, they have argued that the Delaware Constitution doesn’t guarantee students receive a fair or “adequate” education system.
“Equality and adequacy are laudable goals,” said attorney Kathaleen McCormick for the administration during a court hearing last summer. “But we do not find any language that says the judicial system has any right to decide if schools are adequate.”
With Democrats in the majority in both houses and Carney settled in after being elected to his first term in 2016–there is likely to be some pressure to rewrite the funding formula before the courts do.
If so, there is money available.
This week, the Delaware fiscal council released projections suggesting that the state will have an additional $102 million this fiscal year on top of what lawmakers planned for when they passed a $4.27 billion operating budget in June.
The Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council also increased its estimate for revenues in 2020 by $46 million.
But Carney and Democratic lawmakers spent much of last year fighting about how spend unanticipated revenue. A compromise directed about $190 million for one-time, infrastructure projects while holding back $47 million in reserve.
The Legislature refused to support a constitutional amendment proposed by Carney that would require that lawmakers limit spending in good years and put more away in a rainy day fund.