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Judges refuses to dismiss lawsuit over school funding

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(AP) – A judge on Tuesday denied a request by state officials to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that Delaware is failing to provide adequate educational opportunities for disadvantaged students.

Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster issued a 133-page ruling concluding that plaintiffs represented by the ACLU of Delaware and Community Legal Aid Society Inc. had raised claims that should be decided at trial.

The lawsuit points to the dismal performance on standardized assessments among children from low-income families, children with disabilities, and children whose first language is not English. It also alleges that the state has failed to provide adequate funding for those students, who number in the tens of thousands and are collectively described as “disadvantaged.”

Laster noted that, unlike many other states, Delaware provides no additional financial support for educating low-income students and virtually no additional financial support for educating students who are learning English as a second language.

“Notably, the plaintiffs do not blame the principals, teachers, and other professionals who work with disadvantaged students,” the judge noted. “The plaintiffs instead challenge a system that has charged educators with helping disadvantaged students achieve grade-level proficiency, yet has failed to provide the financial and educational resources that would enable them to perform that task.”

Laster blasted the argument by state officials that the Education Clause of Delaware’s constitution requires only that the public school system be “general,” encompassing all of Delaware’s students, and “efficient,” in, for example, using centralization to reduce administrative costs and yield economic efficiencies.

“At the extreme, the state could corral disadvantaged students into warehouses, hand out one book for every fifty students, assign some adults to maintain discipline, and tell the students to take turns reading to themselves,” Laster wrote. “Because the state does not think the Education Clause says anything about the quality of education, even this dystopian hypothetical would satisfy their version of the constitutional standard.”

Laster said allegations regarding how the state allocates financial and educational resources, and how disadvantaged students have become re-segregated by race and class, suggest that Delaware’s public education system has “deep structural flaws,” profound enough to support a claim that the state is failing its constitutional mandate to maintain a “general and efficient” school system that serves disadvantaged students.

The judge rejected the state’s argument that the constitutional obligation to provide free education to Delaware’s children is not one the judiciary can enforce, but is instead a political question that the courts cannot address. While courts must respect the General Assembly’s power to declare public policy and to determine what is in the public interest, the responsibility for determining whether a particular statutory regime complies with Delaware’s constitution lies with the judicial branch, the judge said.

Jonathan Starkey, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. John Carney, said officials were reviewing the ruling.

“Separate and apart from this opinion, Governor Carney has said since the day he took office that he believes all Delaware children deserve a quality education,” Starkey noted in an email. “He is committed to investing in Delaware’s schools, and providing additional support and resources for schools serving low-income children, English learners and students with special needs. The budget that the Governor signed on July 1 targeted additional funding to support students and educators in those schools.”

In addition to Carney, other defendants in the lawsuit are Delaware’s education secretary and state treasurer, and the finance directors for the state’s three counties.

Last month, Laster denied a request by local governments to dismiss the lawsuit, which alleges that school property tax collections based on outdated assessments are partially to blame for the lack of funding.

Laster said in that ruling that he has jurisdiction to decide whether counties are not complying with a state law requiring that property be assessed at fair market value. The law, however, does not require that counties conduct reassessments on any particular schedule.

Kent County in central Delaware last reassessed property values in 1987, while northern New Castle County’s current assessment dates to 1983. Sussex County, home to million-dollar beach homes in southern Delaware, last reassessed property values in 1974.

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