Delaware invests more than a billion dollars a year in public education, but our state’s method for allocating dollars, many argue, raises serious questions about transparency, efficiency, and equity. The questions aren’t going away, either. Delaware’s public education spending has only grown over the years as student enrollment continues to climb.
That’s not all. Here are just five ways Delaware’s funding system doesn’t add up.
- Delaware’s funding system is over 70 years old
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That isn’t the case for a funding system created when schools were still racially segregated, when there were no federal protections for students with disabilities, and when computers weren’t part of everyday life. Classrooms are not the same as they were in the 1940s. Students’ academic and non-academic needs are growing—just as technology has transformed the way teaching and learning occur. Delaware’s restrictive funding system hinders personalized learning models where technology and innovative classroom models put students in the driver’s seat of their own learning.
- Spending is not transparent—for parents or for advocates
In a Vision Coalition statewide poll on education, 69 percent of Delawareans agree that it is too hard to find information about how tax dollars are spend in the education system. Only 27 percent agree that they could find information they needed on how tax dollars are spent.
To date, Delaware does not report education spending at the school-level within traditional districts. Public reporting of education spending is limited to online school profiles, which show state and district average per pupil expenditures, and the state’s open checkbook, which lists and displays all financial transactions in the state. For the average parent or taxpayer, it’s unclear exactly how schools are receiving and spending education dollars, or whether schools serving high populations of low-income students are getting the resources they need to provide a high-quality education.
- The money does not follow students
The state distributes most funds based on prescriptive and inflexible units—or fixed staff positions. Despite the fact that student ratios undergird the unit system, there is no set dollar amount for each individual student, as there is in most other states. Instead, one unit enables districts to hire based on teachers’ level of education and experience. This means that the same student, with the same needs, could “earn” different amounts of money from the state depending on where they go to school. And custodians, secretaries, and administrators monies are allocated based on such outlandish measures such as the number of classrooms, auditorium seating capacity, swimming pools, or the size of central heating and air.
- Inflexibility = inefficiency
Funds received through the unit count generally cannot be used as cash for other purposes. Only around eight percent of funding is truly flexible. Less rigidity could result in savings for schools through smarter spending, such a contracting out services or using allocated funds to meet specific student needs—something that is already happening in Delaware charter schools.
- Our current system is unfair to students
Our current funding system disproportionately disadvantages low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learner students. Students with higher needs don’t get more money allocated to them, even though we know it takes more resources to adequately educate these students. English learners and low-income students are consistently underserved, as indicated by academic outcomes (see Delaware Public Education at a Glance) yet have zero dedicated state funding. The system even has barriers for students with disabilities, as illustrated in this infographic. The result of this inequitable system is a large portion of our high-needs students (up to one-third of the entire public school population in the case of low-income students) are not fully benefiting from our current public education funding formula.
Delaware can build a better system. Here’s how:
- Update the funding system and base it on student needs. A foundation system or weighted student funding system allocates money for each student, with additional funds for high-need students (low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners). A majority of states use this type of system—though not all provide extra funding for all the high-need categories we listed here.
- Create more flexibility for schools and districts by allowing them to determine how to best use education dollars. Offer training for school and district leaders to make informed decisions on how to best use flexible dollars.
- Build transparency into the system. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers an opportunity for states to become more transparent in how funding looks at the school level, if implemented consistently across the state. A more simplified system where money follows students will allow for schools and districts to estimate the amount of funding they will receive and make it easier for parents and taxpayers to see the impact of public education investments.