Commentary: Change needed in public school funding

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When my mother attended the all-Black William W.M. Henry Comprehensive High School during the 1960s, she lived with the inequities of her era: segregation, separate-but-not-equal facilities and so much more.

And while most aspects of our society have grown and evolved over the generations, one thing has not: Delaware’s inequitable public school-funding system, which continues to hold back our young people who are traditionally underserved by our institutions.

As the First State and the nation continue to wrestle with racial justice and rebound from a historic pandemic, the timing is right to take a major step toward dismantling an unfair vestige of our past.

Delaware’s school-funding formula dates back to the 1940s and assumes that all students are the same. It was developed long before Brown v. Board of Education forced schools to integrate and long before “special education” or “equity” entered our public consciousness. Delaware and the federal government have tweaked the process along the way, but the basic structure of the system has not changed for nearly 80 years, despite the fact our student population continues to grow and evolve: English-learner students have increased by 433% since 1997, and low-income students make up roughly 37% of the student body.

Today, Delaware is one of only four states that doesn’t provide additional resources for English learners as part of its funding formula, meaning districts and charters must find creative ways to pull together other funding to meet legal requirements for serving English learners. Dedicated funds for traditionally underserved students would help districts and charters provide a wide array of much-needed services, including hiring additional certified instructors.

The Carney administration’s acknowledgement of this challenge gives us hope. But the administration’s solution — extra, one-time “Opportunity Funding” for schools based on enrollment of EL and low-income students — is merely a drop in the bucket. Opportunity Funding represents about 5% of Delaware’s $3 billion education budget. It does not address the underlying “unit count” funding system that so often fails our neediest schools and communities.

System-wide, flexible funding that follows the student could allow districts and schools to tailor the supports they provide. That could mean extra services for students learning English or options for students looking to add college credits 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, this isn’t the case.

How can we expect our students to be the best and brightest if we, as their guardians, allow for inequities to be left unaddressed within the very system that helps mold and shape them into who they’re destined to be?

Knowing our funding system has not changed in 80 years is unimaginable and has lit a fire within me to continue to advocate for our youth. It’s hard to believe every aspect of our world is moving forward except for the way we fund education. Our communities need more; our children deserve more.

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.

We know that our youth are bright, intelligent and creative. My heart and my passion is in making sure that they have all that they need to be the best that they can be. Our kids will blow your mind if given the chance to shine. All they need is to have an uninhibited space to work in.

Delaware is at a historical crossroad. Right now, state leaders have the opportunity to strike down decades of systemic inequity by revamping Delaware’s school-funding system. In 2020, following a highly publicized lawsuit that claimed that the current system is unconstitutional, a settlement was reached between Delaware and the civil rights groups, Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the NAACP of Delaware.

We must do more to uproot our inequitable funding system.

We’re not the same people we were in the 1940s, or the 1960s. Our young people deserve a modern, excellent and equitable educational experience — no matter what their background or history says.

Take action today. Visit delawareschoolfunding101.com, developed by Education Equity Delaware, to learn more about an unfair system that needs to change. Click here to tell legislators to pass Senate Bill 56, the “Opportunity Funding” bill.

Danielle K. Craig is the assistant director of experiential learning and data analysis at Delaware State University, the president of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League Young Professionals and a member of the Education Equity Delaware Steering Committee.

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