Funding Delaware schools (Whipple)

“Everyone talks about the weather,” Mark Twain supposedly quipped, “but no one ever does anything about it.” And based on the results to date, much the same point might be made about the way in which Delaware funds its public schools.

There have been a rash of recent reports about the need to reboot the system in one way or another. See, for example, “Our school funding system is failing Delaware children, Mike Matthews, News Journal,

Some of the complaints may seem oddly familiar, and with good reason. It seems that property tax reassessment, more generous funding for schools in impoverished areas, etc. have been raised over the years, as for example in a 2008 report of the LEAD (Leadership for Education and Achievement in Delaware) committee.

By way of background, Delaware’s public schools are funded by three levels of government. About 60% of the funds come from the state government, 30% from school district property taxes, and 10% from federal grants.

This arrangement could work to the advantage of affluent school districts, while shortchanging school districts in which property values are lower. The state helps to balance the scales for poorer school districts with equalization funding, but appropriations for this purpose have apparently been cut at times. Delaware school finance 101, Nov. 2015.

Due to budget constraints, the formula has been frozen for several years and [is] not functioning properly.

Advocacy for the poorer schools has now moved beyond per pupil equality to demands for extra funding because so many students in these schools need English language learning (ELL), extra mental health counseling, access to “food closets,” etc. Now is the time to fix Delaware school funding, Maria Matos & Rodman Ward, News Journal,

Conservatives may be excused for wondering why teachers and school administrators should get into all these matters, in effect acting as substitute parents and shilling for special interest groups. And a lawsuit is pending based on the demands. Schools no place for social engineering, John Newton, News Journal,

Is this merely a fancy approach at throwing more money at special interest groups? And does it mean that a new class of disadvantaged students are created, namely the average students who now get less funding?

Some liberals are hoping the court will put its foot down and force the Delaware government to do the “right thing.” School funding court case, Randall Chase & Matthew Albright, News Journal,

True, Governor Carney requested $60 million (over three years) for the ELL programs, etc. in his budget for FY 2020, but this is a fat budget year and the largesse might be watered down during the next budget crunch.

Here’s my advice to the liberals: “be careful what you wish for.” Unlike the other branches of government, courts aren’t designed to craft and oversee broad-based government programs. See the late Jim Venema’s talk to the Retired Men’s Luncheon Club on
8/17/12, in which he explained how a well-intentioned but ill-advised school busing order for northern New Castle County destroyed the Wilmington School District. Several suburban school districts inherited responsibility for the resulting problems of the Wilmington schools and have been wrestling with them ever since.

Another issue with Delaware’s school funding model is that school district tax increases must be approved in a voter referendum, and voter approval is growing increasingly hard to secure. A Christina School District referendum for operating funds and an Indian River referendum from capital funds were recently defeated, in both cases with painful consequences, and legislators have been casting around for some sort of legislative fix.

One pending bill (HB 129) would give school boards the power to approve annual operating expense increases up to the increase in the CPI or 2%, whichever is higher [changed to lower by a 6/14 amendment]. Let’s fix our broken school tax system, Earl Jacques, News Journal,

The idea of property tax reassessment has been defended as simply a matter of fairness. Wild history of “blue laws” has several modern-day lessons, Matthew Albright, News Journal,

Folks, “you cannot refute the idea that, if you’re going to pay taxes on stuff, you should pay taxes based on how much that stuff is actually worth.” As it is, “some people are arbitrarily paying more taxes than they should, and some paying less – in some cases, far less.”

Fine, other states reassess property values on a regular basis, e.g., Virginia at least every six years, and it’s probably a sound policy. But Delawareans suspect that the current push for property tax reassessment reflects a tax-increase agenda, i.e., average property valuations would rise more than tax rates were cut. Bill would take school tax hikes out of voters’ hands, Natalia Alamdari, News Journal,

And why do the districts keep needing referendums to stay afloat. Because “property values are not regularly reassessed, the tax base stays stagnant, forcing districts to rely on referendums to boost funds.” Bingo!

Here are two closing thoughts:

First, if legislators want less public skepticism about their motivations, they should be less disposed to sneak bills through the General Assembly that reflect inherent disdain for the interests or feelings of Delawareans. We don’t need a ban of plastic bags (such as was approved by the General Assembly this year and is awaiting the governor’s signature); it would simply represent one more annoyance in a society where individual freedoms are being steadily chipped away. And the proposed expansion of the Renewable Portfolio Standard wouldn’t measurably affect global temperatures so the only real world consequence would be higher electric power costs.

Second, we’d like to see government officials put more effort into solving real problems versus simply talking about them The core problem with Delaware schools is not that they are underfunded, it is that there are “too many cooks in the broth” and much of the available money is being spent on administration versus education. Why don’t our legislators and educational administrators acknowledge these points and set out to make changes that would yield better results?

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