Delaware should stand once more for educational equality (Robert Hayman & Leland Ware)

Mr. Hayman is a professor emeritus at Widener University Delaware Law School; Mr. Ware is a professor at the Biden School, University of Delaware.

In a 1973 case from Texas, “because of local wealth differences, state and local funding for students in some districts was double what it was for students in others.” The Supreme Court supposedly concluded that “the need for reform is apparent,” but only four of the justices found a violation of the “equal protection of the laws” guarantee. The majority concluded that education was not a “fundamental right.”

But fret not, because “in our system . . . constitutional rights can have more than one source, and more than one means of protection.” Look to the state constitutions, “every one [of which] is explicit in guaranteeing a right to a free public education.” And Delaware [1897 constitution] is one of 13 states that expresses this as a guarantee of an “efficient” system of education.

Historically, black students got little or no educational support in Delaware, but modest improvement followed after the 1897 constitution went into effect and accelerated in 1917 when Pierre S. du Pont organized an effort to reform the schools. A 1921 education law “created a genuine public school system and . . . created an equivalent education for the state’s black and white students.” However, “disparities persisted between black and white schools, and, relatedly, between rich and poor.”

Currently, there are many “disadvantaged students” in Delaware’s public schools: 50K low income students; 20K students with disabilities; 10K students who speak English as a second language. These students “have, by definition, greater educational needs.” And according to a pending lawsuit, “these needs are not being met.” Indeed, schools with higher percentages of low income students receive less per-student support for education than schools with lower percentages.” And, guess what, “the overwhelming majority of disadvantaged students fail to meet proficiency standards” in English and math.

OK, adequate funding may not be sufficient to meet these needs, but “surely it is necessary. And this isn’t the first time the Chancery Court has been asked to intercede. In 1950, the desegregation of the University of Delaware was ordered. In 1952, the desegregation of two public schools was ordered, which order was subsequently affirmed by the US Supreme Court as a part of Brown v. Board of Education. However, this proved to be “the beginning, not the end of the ongoing struggle to desegregate.”

Under cover of the Neighborhood Schools Act of 2000, the schools of New Castle County [apparently with the exception of the Brandywine School District] “have now re-segregated along both racial and economic lines.” But this is wrong, because “even high poverty neighborhood schools are not fair and equitable to the children attending them” – and not “efficient” either – because the students at these schools have “greater needs” and therefore should receive “more resources.”

Surely the “efficient” education of all of our students should be a “shared responsibility” – as required by the Delaware constitution.

This chronology omits a key point, namely the court-ordered busing order for north New Castle County that, however well-intentioned, badly damaged the Wilmington public school system and left many of the current problems as a legacy. See the late Jim Venema’s talk to the Retired Men’s Luncheon Club on 8/17/12.

Additionally, whatever corrective action is needed should appropriately come from the other branches of government – not the courts. Funding Delaware schools, CC of DE newsletter, 7/1/19.
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