Carney proposes more funding for needy students

DOVER — Gov. John Carney announced plans Tuesday to provide $60 million worth of additional funding for students who live in poverty or are non-native English speakers.

Referred to by one prominent education advocate as a landmark proclamation, the initiative comes as the state is facing a lawsuit alleging its system of funding schools is unconstitutional and deprives some pupils of a solid education.

“Here’s an uncomfortable truth: We’re leaving too many of our children behind, and that’s especially true in schools serving our lowest-income children, schools in Wilmington, here in Dover, in Seaford and other pockets of poverty across our state,” Gov. Carney said.

“The same is true for students who are learning English and need additional resources to reach their fullest potential. Despite the best efforts of committed educators and school leaders, many of these students are not getting the education they need to be successful and the education they deserve as citizens of our state,” the Democrat added.

The proposal, which is intended to be included in the governor’s budget recommendations next week, would allocate $500 to school districts per English language learner and $300 for each impoverished pupil. Students who fall into both groups would generate $800 of funding.

Charter schools also would be earmarked funding for the target groups.

As part of the initiative, districts would be allocated a combined $20 million per year over the next three years. If passed by lawmakers, the proposal would take effect in the 2019-2020 school year.

Potential uses for the money include hiring more personnel, ranging from math specialists to counselors, and adding after-school programs. District spending plans must be approved by the Department of Education and must directly benefit low-income students and those whose primary language is not English, although the districts do have some freedom as to how they can use the funding.

“Thank for your providing the flexibility so that each district can deal with the needs of their children, so that there isn’t just one way to do it, there’s a way to do it that will meet the needs in Wilmington, meet the needs in Dover, meet the needs in Georgetown,” Caesar Rodney Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald said.

“We understand that even though we’re a small state that our children differ and that we need to approach each one of them as an individual and take care of each one’s individual needs.”

According to state data, of the approximately 138,400 public school students in the 2017-2018 school year, there were about 12,900 English language learners and 48,600 low-income students, although that does include some overlap in categories.

Eight of the state’s 19 districts have poverty rates of at least 40 percent, particularly in and around Wilmington, Dover and western Sussex County. In both Capital and Laurel school districts, more students live in poverty than not.

Gov. Carney denied the plan was influenced by the lawsuit filed against the state in January 2018 by several nonprofits.

“Our feeling is that it’s a good thing, it’s certainly necessary, we agree with Gov. Carney that more resources for disadvantaged students will improve their education, but we are concerned that this is a temporary increase. … It’s a step in the right direction, but we don’t feel that it’s sufficient,” Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, said. The ACLU is one of the groups representing the plaintiffs, Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the Delaware National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“The complaint alleges that Delaware fails to provide adequate funding for Disadvantaged Students,” Travis Laster, a member of the Court of Chancery, wrote in a November opinion rejecting a request from the state to dismiss the lawsuit.

“One reasonable and common sense inference supported by the allegations of the complaint is that Disadvantaged Students need more funding and more services than their more privileged peers.

“In Delaware, however, the educational funding system generally provides more support for more privileged children than it provides for impoverished children. Put differently, schools with more Disadvantaged Students receive less financial support from the State than schools with fewer Disadvantaged Students. Likewise, school districts with poorer tax bases receive less funding from the State than school districts with wealthier tax bases.

“Unlike thirty-five other states, Delaware provides no additional financial support for educating low-income students. Unlike forty-six other states, Delaware provides virtually no additional financial support for educating students who are learning English as a second language.”

Standardized test scores, on average, are drastically lower for students with intrinsic disadvantages. In the 2017-2018 school year, for instance, between 33 and 41 percent of low-income students from third through eighth grade tested as proficient in the English language arts portion of the Smarter Balanced standardized test.

For students not designated low-income, at least 62 percent in every grade scored as proficient.

Similar patterns appear for English language learners. Less than 5 percent of English language learners in sixth grade were at grade level in math, while 42 percent of non-ELL sixth graders were. In Smarter Balanced’s English section, just 6 percent of non-native English speakers in sixth grade received a passing grade. About 55 percent of students not classified as ELL did so.

Over the past 17 years, state commissions have on three occasions urged specific changes to better serve needy students, particularly those living in Wilmington, but few of those recommendations have been taken up by decision-makers.

According to the suit, 26 states increased spending on low-income students from 1990 to 2011, mostly by court order, and those states have since seen better results from needy students.

The lawsuit continues to move forward and could ultimately lead to a court ordering Delaware to change its education funding formula or instructing the counties to update property assessments for the first time in more than 30 years.

Separately, over the next three years, a panel of parents, teachers and community leaders will track Smarter Balanced test scores and the percentage of high school graduates who are ready for college or careers with hopes of determining what works and what does not.

Tuesday’s announcement was applauded by education advocates, several of whom were part of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, a state-created group that in 2015 recommended weighted funding and redistricting.

“I think this is a watershed moment,” said Tony Allen, the chair of the commission.

The added funding is long overdue, Delaware State Education Association President Stephanie Ingram said, a statement repeated by others.

Since Gov. Carney took office two years ago, the state has expended $7 million on opportunity grants providing additional money for schools with high percentages of English Language Learners or impoverished students.

The governor also revealed Tuesday his budget proposal will include a 2 percent raise for teachers, $5 million for school safety, $4.5 million for broadband expansion, $1 million to establish 100 new teacher residencies and $700,000 to expand a student loan forgiveness program open to some teachers.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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