Complaint seeks to improve salaries in needy districts
A lawsuit seeking better school funding for districts with low-income students who perform poorly on state tests is moving forward in Chancery Court. In November, a court ruled against a state request to dismiss the case, giving the case the green light.
Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the NAACP, representing about 20 parents and community leaders, filed the lawsuit in January 2018 in an effort to secure more money and better teachers for struggling school districts.
The lawsuit cites state test scores from the Department of Education that show only 12 percent and 39 percent of low-income students score proficiently on math and English assessments.
“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,” the lawsuit states.
The state asked for the court to dismiss the lawsuit because it is up to the General Assembly and the Delaware Department of Education, not the court, to determine whether public schools are providing “a general and efficient system of free public schools.”
However, the court disagreed, stating the state has failed to provide an efficient education to disadvantaged students, and Delaware's Constitution vests judicial power over public schools through the lower courts and Delaware Supreme Court.
“All courts shall be open; and every person for an injury done him or her . . . shall have remedy by the due course of law, and justice administered according to the very right of the cause and the law of the land,” the decision states.
Morgan Keller, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Delaware, said no new court action has been filed in Chancery Court since the November ruling.
In a previous interview, Ryan Tack-Hooper, attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Delaware, said struggling school districts have difficulty keeping good teachers because they can't pay as much as wealthier school districts. Teachers with experience typically leave struggling schools for higher-paying jobs, which negatively affects students.
“Teachers who have the hardest job are often paid the least and have the least amount of resources to work with,” Tack-Hooper said. “Teachers go to these schools and leave after a few years.”
While the state pays a portion of all teacher salaries, the local school district also pays a share raised by property taxes. In recent years, residents of wealthier school districts, such as Cape Henlopen, have voted to raise operational expenses to pay for teacher salary increases. Other districts have had difficulties passing tax increases for new buildings or district salaries.
The lawsuit offers no solution to fix funding and teachers' salaries, but it asks a judge to find the current system unconstitutional and force the state to fix it.
A funding system that relies on locally approved property taxes based on assessments that have not been updated since the 1980s or earlier is also part of the problem, Tack-Hooper said.