Lawsuit settlement will increase funding for education equity

WILMINGTON — More support — and funding — will target low-income students, those with disabilities and students who are English learners after a lawsuit against the state was settled Monday.

The lawsuit, filed in 2018 by Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the NAACP of Delaware, claimed that the state had for many years been aware of substantial 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.

Gov. John Carney, Secretary of Education Susan Bunting and Delaware State Treasurer Colleen Davis were listed as defendants.

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

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

The lawsuit sought to have those students provided with the systematic educational resources required by the Delaware Constitution.

The agreement requires the governor to seek legislation bringing new financial commitments and structural changes to the way that Delaware serves disadvantaged students. Some of the systemic changes listed in the agreement are:

• $25 million in Opportunity Funding. Opportunity Funding was instituted on a temporary basis after the lawsuit was underway to enhance services and provide additional resources to English learners and low-income students. Under the settlement, it 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 support in schools with the highest concentrations of low income and English learner students.

• Funding dedicated to basic special education students in kindergarten through third grade to equal funding currently in place for basic special education students in grades four to 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.

“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,” Gov. John Carney said in a prepared statement. “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.

The work is just getting started, he added.

“The General Assembly will need to consider these changes as part of its regular budget process in Dover,” he continued. “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.”

Dr. Bunting, in a statement, agreed that the settlement will “continue our work to support the Delaware students and educators who need our help the most.”

“Our team at the Department of Education looks forward to working with educators to make a real difference for Delaware children with these additional resources,” she said.

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.