Until Thursday, the funding report was not detailed in the state legislature.

Legislators briefed on landmark school funding report

Jarek RutzGovernment, Headlines

Until Thursday, the funding report was not detailed in the state legislature.

Until Thursday, the funding report was not detailed in the state legislature.

Delaware’s lawmakers got their first taste Thursday of a landmark, 200-page report from the American Institutes for Research that suggested the state invest up to 50% more in public education. 

The report was released in December at an event that only a few legislators attended, and on Thursday, it was introduced to the General Assembly in a joint House and Senate Education Committee meeting.

Stakeholders have been digesting the report over the past few months, and no action has been taken yet.

“Our next step … is to educate people about what the report says and what it means, and once we’re fully educated, then we’ll make decisions about what we need to do going forward,” said Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Hockessin and chair of the Senate Education Committee. Sturgeon also worked as a public school teacher for 25 years.

Thursday’s presentation was led by Drew Atchison, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, who also presented in December’s launch. 

The state paid $700,000 for the report, which filled with data on funding discrepancies from district to district and state to state; the lack of funding for high-needs students in Delaware, such as English learners, low-income students, students with disabilities and more, who would get multiple times more funding in other states; and the sharp decline in academic success, specifically with state and national standardized tests, in Delaware since 2013. 

After a couple legislators said directly or implied that Delaware is “middle of the pack,” Britney Mumford, executive director of DelawareCAN, an education advocacy group, said in public comment that it is “facetious to say the state is middle of the pack.”

She then shared a slew of rankings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which Delaware ranked 45 or worse in every category on the test, such as fourth-grade math and eighth grade English language arts.  

Atchison’s presentation Thursday was pretty identical to his presentation in December.

The state already allocates about a third, or $2 billion, of its annual budget to public education, and the report recommended it spends anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion more.

A core part of the report is to switch to a weighted funding system, rather than the current resource-based system that converts student enrollment into “units” and bases part of the funding on the experience level of teachers. 

Very few states have the funding system Delaware does, and the First State’s funding formula is one of, if not the oldest in the country, remaining unchanged for more than 80 years. 

The eight recommendations integral to the report include:

  1. Increase investment in Delaware’s public education
  2. Distribute more resources according to student need
  3. Improve funding transparency
  4. Allow for more flexibility in how districts use resources
  5. Account for local capacity and address tax inequity
  6. Regularly reassess property values
  7. Simplify the calculation of local share provided to charter schools
  8. Implement a weighted student funding (or foundation) formula

Another component is that poorer districts have the least experienced teachers and pay them the least, so it’s hard to break the cycle if there aren’t exceptional educators sticking around in a school that would benefit most from them.

Also, Delaware is a unique state that requires a voting referendum for any tax increase, no matter how small, while most other states can increase it to a certain amount without any referendum.

This means Delaware districts often go to referendum and are reliant on residents voting for a tax hike to fulfill the needs and supports of the district.

Also, poorer districts struggle in Delaware to raise the local revenue they need for operational costs of new construction or building projects, while richer districts have a lesser challenge in doing so. 

This is made apparent in the report, which shows that in Delaware, the state contribution to K-12 education is greater than comparison states, whereas district contributions are lower than comparison states.

Both Democrats and Republicans had concerns about the influx of funding.

Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown, said the state tests results are “horrifying,” that she’s glad her children graduated before the sharp decline that started in 2013 on national tests, and is worried for her grandchildren currently in Delaware schools. 

But, she questioned if there is direct correlation that an increase in funding will result in better academic outcomes.  

Sen. Eric Buckson, R-Dover, suggested that there are students who are misdiagnosed as having a disability or an Individualized Education Program (also considered a disability), which leads to other students not necessarily getting the resources they need. 

Buckson, a retired Polytech educator, also wanted to know what percentage of the budget education makes up in other states, and said education is a huge chunk of Delaware’s budget.

Atchison and the two other presenters – Bruce Baker, professor and chair of the teaching and learning department at the University of Miami; and Kenneth Shores, assistant professor at the School of Education and the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy at  the University of Delaware – did not have that data. 

However, Shores pointed out that in other states that have had education funding increased, there has been no evidence that they pull money from another category or program.

Instead, they almost always have an increase in tax revenue, usually from increasing sales tax, property tax or income tax.

Buckson said he appreciated Shores’ straight-forward answer, as it’s clear some of this will fall on the taxpayer if the state does decide to add $500 million to $1 billion more into education.

Hansen was clear that she wants her colleagues in the legislature to have a good understanding of how a law will lead to a result.

She said they must review how a particular bill  led to a particular result in another state that went through education funding reform. 

“If we know that X bill resulted in y outcome, like improved test scores, that gives us some idea of how this could work,” she said.  

Between 1987 and 2008, 38 states enacted K-12 funding reform, increasing state revenues by $1,000 per pupil on average, and in some cases, much more than that, Shores said.

Those states’ tax revenues also increased by $1,000 per pupil on average in this period, he said.

Legislators acknowledged that Thursday’s briefing is the beginning of an ongoing process to reform Delaware’s school funding system.

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