From 1973-2017, Delaware was one of the few states around the country in which no equity or adequacy litigations had been filed in the state courts.
Initiating the first educational adequacy litigation in Delaware’s history, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Delaware and the Community Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit against state officials in January 2018 for their failure to fairly and adequately fund education across schools in the state (Delawareans for Educational Opportunity v. Carney). The suit argues that the Delaware Constitution’s requirement of a “general and efficient system of free public schools” guarantees all children a meaningful opportunity to obtain an adequate education and a substantially equal educational opportunity.
The plaintiffs specifically allege that the state has failed to provide sufficient funds to students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and students who are English language learners. In this regard, they state that 64% of low-income students, 85% of English language learners and 86% of students with disabilities did not meet the state standards in grades three through eight for English Language Arts established by the state. They further claim that the state’s education funding often provides more support for children who are well off than it provides for children living in poverty.
According to the complaint, the state provides virtually no additional financial support for the education of English language learners, unlike 46 other states; and unlike 35 other states, it provides no additional financial support for the education of low-income children. Furthermore, basic special education funding is not provided by the state for students with disabilities in kindergarten through third grade, causing them to fall farther and farther behind in their early school years.
The suit identifies several state policies as the source of the state’s failure to provide adequate funding. First, the state’s “equalization formula” does not solve inter-district and per-pupil funding disparities. Additionally, state policies like the Neighborhood Schools Act have led to re-segregation of school districts, prioritizing white suburban interests in education policy. The suit also argues that the state relies too heavily on local taxes to fund schools.
The suit was brought on behalf of two organizations: Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the NAACP Delaware State Conference of Branches. Prior to the filing of this lawsuit, Delaware was one of only five states across the nation where no educational adequacy litigation had been attempted. Now, it is only in Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah that no constitutional claims regarding inequities or inadequacies in education funding have ever been lodged.
In October, 2018, Delaware Chancery Court Judge Travis Lester denied the state’s motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims that a failure by county officials to raise market values of properties that are used to levy taxes for school aid purposes violated the Delaware Constitution. Two months earlier, Judge Laster had decided that the adequacy and the tax issues should be considered separately.
Most of the Court’s decision dealt with standing and other technical issues relating to whether the plaintiffs had brought the case in the correct court in light of Delaware’s complex jurisdictional rules and whether the correct defendants were being sued. After ruling for the plaintiffs on these points, the Court held that the case could proceed to trial on these issues because “It is reasonably conceivable that using assessments from 1987, 1983, and 1974 violates the Market Value Requirement. Determining whether or not that is true will require an evidentiary record that addresses changes in value since these years.”
Now that he has ruled on the tax issues, the judge is expected to rule on defendants’ motion to dismiss the adequacy claims in late November.