An enormous and growing number of Delaware students—including those learning English, have special needs, or come from low-income families—aren’t being properly served by our state’s school funding system. This issue has been thrust back into the spotlight thanks to a high-profile civil rights lawsuit, and the ongoing heightened conversations about the Christina School District.
Something has got to give.
The equity challenges in our funding system are not surprising because it was designed in the 1940s, more than three decades before black students were fully integrated and before the federal government determined that students learning English or had a disability were eligible for a “free and appropriate public education.” While there have been tweaks to the system (and while the federal government provides some limited funding to address these issues), the basic design of the system has not changed for nearly 80 years. Yet English learner students have increased by 433 percent since 1997, and low-income students make up roughly 37 percent of the student body. Addressing the unique needs of these students simply were not built into the system back then because that was not its charge.
Eighty years ago, the world around our young people was more than a little bit different. Of course, communication and travel looked dramatically different, and the economy was humming along pretty well with just about 13 percent of Delawareans having some education beyond high school.
In short, we have a funding system built and designed for a completely different student body, era, and economy. Almost every other state in the country and most high-performing countries have long since moved to a system that reflects the fact that different children need different supports to succeed.
We often talk about an equitable, student-centered funding system as a standalone concept. But it’s not; it’s fundamental to ensuring the success of all types of students with a variety of needs and interests.
Often, the same kids who don’t receive dedicated funding also have known social and emotional needs, and additional flexible funding that follows the student could allow districts and schools to tailor wraparound supports. Consider the thousands of students who arrive in Delaware learning English, or who are striving to graduate high school with some college credits under their belt, or who want to supplement their traditional classes with online or distance learning experiences. In other states, schools have the financial flexibility to support these students down their unique paths. In Delaware, not so much. In some cases, savvy superintendents and charter school leaders can work around the system to get there, but the system should be built to respond to and support these shifts.
Delaware is one of only four states that doesn’t provide additional resources for English learners, meaning districts and charters must cobble together other funding to meet legal requirements for serving English learners. In other words, a school with 100 EL students receives the same amount of state funding as a school with 10 EL students—$0. Dedicated funds for EL students would help districts and charters provide a wide array of services, including hiring additional certified instructors.
Delaware’s unit count funding system also stands in the way of unleashing the full powers of personalized learning. Innovative school design, reimagined teacher roles, and flexible course offerings for students—like online or distance learning, community experiences where students earn credit, and other activities related to students’ specific needs and interests—require complicated workarounds, thanks to our inflexible spending model.
Nearly across the board, Delaware’s funding system limits creativity and innovation in our schools—while further deepening inequity and leaving behind kids who need more support.
These are the reasons Rodel counts itself among more than25 (and growing) organizations urging the state to consider a more equitable, student-centered funding formula. The Education Equity Delaware coalition is making this issue a priority.
Join us on April 19th when we’ll welcome local advocates and national experts, including former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, for a half-day conference dedicated to exploring Delaware’s school funding conundrum and coming together to find solutions.