School funding court case (Randall Chase/ Matthew Albright)

11/29/18, Judge allows school funds lawsuit, Randall Chase – Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster denied the state’s motion to dismiss on grounds that plaintiffs represented by DE ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society had raised claims that should be decided at trial.

The lawsuit complains of low scores on standardized assessments by children from low-income families, children with disabilities, and children whose first language is not English. The claim is that the state has failed to provide adequate funding for these students, who number in the tens of thousands and are collectively described as “disadvantaged.” Ergo, disproportionate funding should be provided for students in this category.

As the judge put it, the educational system charges educators with helping disadvantaged students to achieve grade level proficiency, yet fails to provide additional funds that would enable them to do so. Forget the argument that the DE constitution didn’t require additional funds, because the situation was sufficiently dire to support a claim that the state was failing to provide a “general and efficient” school system for these students.

Also rejected was the argument that this was a political versus legal issue. Although the courts must respect the General Assembly’s power to declare public policy and determine what is in the public interest, the judicial branch is responsible for construing the constitutional provision.

Jonathan Starkey of the governor’s office said the ruling was being reviewed. He also noted that the budget signed by the governor on July 1 had targeted extra funding for schools serving large numbers of the disadvantaged students.

A motion by local school boards to dismiss the lawsuit was previously denied on grounds that courts had jurisdiction to order reassessment of real estate for property tax purposes. No particular schedule applies by law, but reassessments have not been conducted for decades: New Castle Country (1983), Kent County (1987), Sussex Country (1974).

12/1/18, School funding court case could be biggest since desegregation, Matthew Albright – Chancery Court Judge Travis Lester is credited with a “tour-de-force opinion on Delaware school funding” that would “force state leaders to finally heed the generations of educators and families who have urged them to fix a broken, inequitable system.” Specifically, plaintiffs say high-poverty schools receive less resources than those in affluent areas “despite the well-researched reality that high-poverty schools require more help, not less.”

Although plaintiffs have not yet won, it appears they are well on their way. But resolving the issue would be very difficult politically, which is why the issue has festered so long.

(1) The best teachers have been around for a while, so they have seniority, and they are concentrated in the affluent schools. Expect them to “vociferously oppose any major change to how they are paid and assigned to schools.”

(2) Providing more money to the high-poverty schools would be a lot easier, except where would it come from? Cutting funds of the other schools wouldn’t be too popular, and neither would be a big boost to overall education funding – which would mean “cutting other programs or raising taxes.”

Some state leaders are hoping the judge will rule for the plaintiffs “because that would give them political cover to do what they already know is right.” It doesn’t hurt that Democrats now “have stronger majorities in both chambers” as a result of the recent elections and are looking for opportunities “to pursue a more ambitious agenda.” Here’s a great opportunity to address income inequality.

Be careful what you wish for! Experience shows the assertion of judicial control over school funding could have a lot of unintended, and probably unfortunate consequences. Two example come to mind.

First is the ill-fated school busing order, which effectively decimated the public school of Wilmington with adverse effects that continue to this day. SAFE member Jim Venema’s talk to the Retired Men’s Luncheon Club on 8/17/12.

Second, a recent school funding decision in Kansas held not only that the allocation of school funding was improper but also that the overall level was inadequate. Once the courts get involved in deciding “how much should be spent on education, and what the money should be used for,” it’s hard to see where or how things will end. A tax cut debacle in Kansas doesn’t prove fiscally conservative policies should be universally rejected, 6/19/17.
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