The Christina School District is poised to receive millions of dollars in state funding to support students with special learning needs after a high-profile lawsuit seeking to address deficiencies in Delaware’s school funding system reached a settlement last month.
Filed by groups including the NAACP and ACLU, the lawsuit made a case that the state’s school funding system is inequitable to students from low-income families, English learners and students with special needs who may require additional resources to succeed in the classroom. The settlement opens an opportunity for state legislators to rethink school funding altogether.
“The amazing diversity of who we serve means that, at times, we can have challenges,” said Keeley Powell, president of the CSD Board of Education. “To me, equity means we have to make sure we’re meeting the needs of everyone.”
CSD completed its annual unit count, a census of the student population which determines funding for staff, just last Friday. The history of the unit count is based in equality — every student counts the same, regardless of race, class or learning needs. However, the policy has come under fire for failing to address learning barriers which affect students unequally.
Delaware currently supplements school budgets with Opportunity Funding, a temporary $25 million grant program created by Gov. John Carney in 2018 to support low-income students and English learners. Per the settlement, Carney will seek approval to expand that funding to $60 million by the 2024-25 school year, with automatic increases in subsequent years.
CSD Superintendent Dan Shelton said the top priority with permanent funding would be additional support staff, a cost that is not sustainable with temporary grant money.
“Our English learner teachers are spread really thin because they’re not dedicated staff right now. We have to pull staff from other sources,” he said, adding that another priority would be paraprofessionals for students with special learning needs. “They need to be able to have more staff in the classroom.”
After efforts to overhaul the state’s education funding have failed in recent years, many hope that this time will be different.
“We’re at a great time where all of these measures are converging at once in terms of funding, in terms of taxes, in terms of the ACLU settlement,” said Alethea Smith-Tucker, a CSD board member. “It’s on everyone’s radar. There’s a recognition that there are long-standing problems that need to be addressed.”
Voters took to the polls earlier this month to send a cadre of progressive legislators to Dover, many of whom campaigned on restructuring funding for education. They will have a chance to codify the terms of the settlement in the general assembly next spring, making the increased Opportunity Funding a permanent line on school district budgets statewide.
State Sen. Dave Sokola, of Newark, observed that just two years ago, he was one of 11 Senate Democrats and in the middle of their age range, whereas after the elections earlier this month, he is the second oldest of 14. While he has advocated for an education funding overhaul for years, the new members are in touch with the changing needs of schools and students.
“Change is always hard, but it’s harder with people who have been reluctant to change,” he said. “It’s so much easier to work with some of the younger people with younger kids who are now in the school system who can recognize some of the issues.”
State Rep. Paul Baumbach, also from Newark, said that efforts to rethink education funding have been victim to the state’s political structure.
“We’ve had a zillion task forces and proposals. We’ve had bills, and we just can’t bring them across the finish line,” he said. “Elected officials can’t pass something that says, ‘We’re going to take money from you because you need it less, and give it to you because you need it more,’ because then we’ll be voted out of office.”
State Sen. Elizabeth Lockman is vice-chairperson of the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity, a group created to make recommendations on education policy at the state level.
For Lockman, the settlement is a starting point. She’s not sure whether it’s realistic to expect the general assembly to settle on a new funding formula in the spring, but she didn’t rule it out. While many hoped the terms of the settlement would offer a clear mandate for restructuring education funding, Lockman still sees places to learn more.
“People can speak broadly about this type of reform, but the technicalities of it take a lot of time,” she said. “Ten years looking at it, and there’s still a lot of opacity there. It’s scary to think that we would pass something without educating ourselves with some thoroughness.”
Christina spends just under $16,000 per pupil, a little below the statewide average of $18,157, according to 2016-2017 unit count data. But because of the unit count system, English learners and low-income students in the state only see an additional investment of 2 to 3 percent, just a few hundred dollars, compared to 25 percent or more in other states.
Freeman Williams, president of the Newark NAACP chapter and a former CSD superintendent, explained that school funding is surprisingly rigid — administrators can’t just shift money around as needed. Because of this, he stressed the importance of codifying the funding permanently.
“Education professionals are always skeptical of short-term, quick-fix solutions,” Williams said. “We can’t expect school teachers, administrators and school board members to really take this effort seriously unless the funding is built into the system.”
Continued funding through grants, Shelton said, could create problems for CSD in the long run. While the grant money might cover teacher costs, it doesn’t account for the additional staff needed to support those teachers.
He argued that the unit count system should be updated with additional funding but not entirely replaced, anticipating the need for more flexibility down the road.
“Our system has had the potential to be the most equitable system out there,” he said. “Maybe in the future, Martians are the new class of people that we have to deal with, and we just have to add something into the unit count for them.”
About 60 percent of CSD funding is from the state, while another 30 percent is local and 10 percent is federal. The same lawsuit argued that Delaware’s counties have failed to properly reassess property values, skewing local funding for schools, and a judge ruled that the counties must update their systems for reassessing property values.
With both local and state education funding poised to be restructured with an eye towards equity, it’s now a question of implementation — it’s up to the counties to address the inequitable assessment of property values, and it’s up to the state legislature to codify Carney’s expanded Opportunity Funding during the spring session.
Dan Rich, a University of Delaware professor specializing in education policy, expects the legislature to support the terms of the settlement. In addition to $60 million in Opportunity Funding, these include doubling funding for the Early Childhood Assistance Program, funding K-3 special education and providing millions of dollars for teacher recruitment in high-needs schools.
Rich said the cost of failing to enact meaningful change to the state’s education funding is great. Students facing barriers to education often have more difficulty accessing college or entering high-skills industries, he explained, and can face higher rates of incarceration.
“Think about what the cost is of not making the investment,” Rich said. “If we can more effectively educate all of our kids, we’re just going to be a stronger society.”
Smith-Tucker pursued her seat on the CSD board because she wanted to better advocate for students and parents who may not have a voice in the education funding policy discussion but see its effects play out in the classroom every day.
One issue Smith-Tucker identified is high teacher turnover at schools with more students from low-income families, while students in more appropriately-resourced schools often benefit from teachers with years or decades of experience.
She also pointed to cultural barriers which can inhibit student success under teachers from different backgrounds. Research on racial disparities in classrooms suggests that children of color can face different standards of grading or discipline, but for Smith-Tucker the issue goes deeper — biases can affect a teacher’s judgement of a student’s intelligence or character.
“Having bias is a barrier that prevents the teacher from really seeing the full potential of a student,” she said. “This is an American plight that is not unique to Christina, not unique to Delaware. This is something that we’re all seeing play out culturally right before our eyes.”
Powell also identified teachers as a key investment for the district, saying that parents and board members can make sure the school diverts new resources to most effectively meet the needs of all students.
“I’m excited about the idea of incentivizing people staying in the teaching field and choosing to go into spaces where we have a lot of need,” Powell said. “All students benefit from having consistent and experienced teachers.”
Plans outlined in the settlement for an ombudsperson, a community representative who would hold school administrators accountable on behalf of parents, caught Powell’s eye. She said the ombudsperson could help families resolve disputes with the district more easily.
Smith-Tucker said bringing parents into the discussion about their students’ success is part of her role on the board.
“There’s a lot of brilliant parents out here who are just waiting to be welcomed in and to feel as though they’re part of the process,” she said.
For Shelton, parents can most effectively encourage their students to thrive by reinforcing at home the importance of school. Regardless of the additional funding which may come down from Dover next year, parents can have a direct impact on student success.
“The most critical thing for student success is for the students to know that their family values education,” Shelton said. “Education isn’t something you have to do — it’s something that is going to help you in the future and for the rest of your life.”