ACLU sues state over education funding: Claims more money must be allocated for ‘high needs’ students

Executive Director of ACLU-DE Kathleen MacRae announces lawsuit against the State of Delaware as Delawareans for Educational Opportunity Jea Street , left, Legal Director for ACLU-DE Ryan Tack Hooper to her right, and President of the Delaware NAACP Linwood Jackson listen during press conference at the Dover Library on Tuesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware has filed a lawsuit against the state over education funding, alleging not enough money goes to supporting high-needs students.

The ACLU detailed the suit Tuesday in a news conference, asking the Court of Chancery to find the current system of funding unconstitutional and order officials to make substantial changes.

The lawsuit was crafted on behalf of Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the Delaware National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and filed with the aid of Community Legal Aid Society Inc.

“Too often, the state provides more support to children who have means and are well-off than they provide to children living in poverty,” Delaware ACLU Executive Director Kathleen MacRae said.

“Unlike 35 other states, Delaware does not provide additional funding to support the education of low-income children. Unlike 46 other states, we do not provide additional resources to support English language learners, and we also don’t provide basic special education funding for students in grades K through three, which causes these children to fall further behind in their early years.”

According to the lawsuit $2.07 billion was spent on public education in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2016, with the majority coming from the state. Local districts contributed a substantial portion, while the federal government provided some money as well.

The lawsuit claims the method of funding provides a disproportionate share to wealthier schools, leaving districts with large numbers of students who come from poverty, have disabilities or are non-native English speakers at a disadvantage.

Fifty-two percent of Delaware students in grades three through eight tested proficient in English on the statewide standard assessment, while 40 percent were proficient in math. But only 36 percent of students from low-income households met standards in English, and 25 did the same for math.

Proficiency is lower among students with disabilities and English language learners.

The lawsuit is based on the princple that every student is entitled to equal opportunity. The state constitution says the state “shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and efficient system of free public schools.”

That provision is not being met, the ACLU claims, because not every student receives the same support.

On three occasions since 2001, state committees have recommended changes to better serve needy students, particularly those living in Wilmington. Those changes have included smaller class sizes, one citywide school district for Wilmington, more professional development for teachers, additional help for non-native English speakers and extra funding for students from impoverished families.

Few of those recommendations have been taken up by decision-makers, however.

“These children have waited far too long. … With the exception of those early education initiatives, the sad, harsh reality is the state of Delaware as a state has not done anything to improve the quality of education for low-income and at-risk children unless a judge or judges has ordered them to do so,” Wilmington City Councilman Jea Street said. “It’s a sad record.”

According to the lawsuit, 26 states upped spending on low-income students from 1990 to 2011, mostly by court order. Those states, the lawsuit notes, have seen better results from needy students.

Of the state’s 137,000 public school students, 37.4 percent are classified as low-income, while 7.2 percent are English language learners and 14.9 are listed as special education, although those percentages have some overlap.

Black students fall well below the average proficiency in English and math. Many of those students reside in Wilmington, a majority-black city.

Delaware schools were segregated until several court cases in the 1950s. After overseeing integration, the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware withdrew, leading to the state halting many of the practices that had resulted in integration.

“The effect of these policies is to place the most disadvantaged students in racially segregated, high poverty schools, which are the same schools least served by the education policies of the state,” the lawsuit says.

It notes in the 2016-2017 school year, Red Clay Consolidated School District was 43.6 percent white, yet there was a vast disparity in demographics among its schools. Warner Elementary School was 2.6 percent, while Heritage Elementary School — located outside the city of Wilmington — was 70 percent white.

Heritage is above average in academic proficiency, while Warner falls below the statewide mean.

Compounding the issue of inequality is the fact property values have not been updated in decades, meaning districts throughout the state could potentially collect more in taxes than they currently receive.

“Delaware’s system for funding schools is unconstitutional because it places an unreasonably heavy burden on taxpayers residing in school districts with low property values to provide sufficient resources to children in those districts,” the lawsuit states.

Many districts are unable to afford as many resources as they need, leading to large classes, few specialists and not enough books for every student.
As an example of inequality, the lawsuit cites Woodbridge School District, which received less per-student funding than Brandywine School District in 2013-2014, even though Brandywine is more than 50 percent wealthier on a per-pupil basis.

The lawsuit names as defendants Gov. John Carney, Secretary of Education Susan Bunting, Treasurer Ken Simpler and financial officers from New Castle, Kent and Sussex government.

A spokesman for the governor wrote in an email the governor’s office is examining the lawsuit.

“As Gov. Carney has said since the day he took office, he believes that all Delaware children deserve a quality education,” Jonathan Starkey said.

“He is committed to investing in Delaware’s schools, and providing additional support and resources for schools serving low-income children, English language learners and students with special needs. He will talk more about his commitment to public education in his State of the State Address this week, and in his budget presentation later this month.”

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