Written for DelawareLiberal.net:
If you have been following anything related to funding public schools in Delaware, you probably know that the system is severely broken and there are major changes being talked about. The Wilmington Education Improvement Commission is talking about needs-based funding (or weighted-student funding) and reallocation of the existing money in the system. Others are talking about changes to the equalization funding formula that’s been frozen for about 20 years. Some are talking about property reassessment. So who’s right? The short answer is: everyone, partially.
Reallocating the money already generated for public schools is a zero-sum game. It isn’t a long term solution and I’m not really sure that it’s a viable short-term solution. Although it’s better than doing nothing I suppose.
Delaware has a hybridized general ed/needs-based funding system already embedded into the current unit count system. See the following chart:
The first 3 columns are the general ed categories. For every 12.8 pre-k students in a school, that school earns 1 teaching unit from the State which amounts to approximately 55-70% of the funding for a teacher’s salary and benefits. For every 16.2 K-3 students, you get a teaching unit. Same deal for every 20 grade 4-12 students. By the way, I’ve yet to figure out how you get two-tenths of a kindergarten student.
The 3 categories on the right: Basic, Intensive, and Complex are the needs-based system. If a student’s level of need is categorized as one of those three, there is significant portion of additional funding that goes to that student. 8.4 students with “basic” level of additional needs gets them 1 basic special ed teaching unit. There are different criteria to meet to categorize a student as one of the three levels of need, but it is a needs based system. By no means is this system adequate to meet the needs of Delaware’s schoolchildren, but it is a framework to expand upon.
As the educational landscape of our schools has changed over the last few decades it’s become clear to many that at least two additional categories of needs-based funding are needed: one weighted on the level of poverty and one weighted on the prevalence of English language learners in the school. I can only speak for the Christina School District since I deal with their finances on a regular basis, but ELL is one of the fastest growing expenses in the district and Christina currently serves some of the poorest children in the state. Make no mistake, our teachers that work with our highest needs students go all out and give everything they have and more to give these children the absolute best education possible, but they need help.
Adding more categories of need requires more money to fund them. If we’re talking reallocation, that means taking money from something else in the education system and putting it towards the new categories. I’m not sure how our kids and teachers come out winning in that scenario. If we’re talking bringing in additional revenue, then given the current financial situation in the State we have to be talking about adding tax brackets. It’s an election year, which politician is going to take one for the team and start talking about raising taxes?
Equalization funding. Once upon a time, the equalization funding formula was created to help the school districts with smaller tax bases (Sussex County) stay competitive with the wealthier districts (New Castle County) in the state by providing additional units of funding tied to the relative size of the tax base. Fast forward a few decades and when it became apparent that the tax base was growing in Kent and Sussex Counties the formula, designed to be fluid and dynamic, was modified, modified again, and then frozen. The result is a complete mess of funding that follows no discernible pattern. Some districts with large tax bases get significantly more funding than a district with a smaller tax base. Some districts earn equalization funding that has no apparent relationship to its tax base (Appoquinimink). Equalization funding is jacked up and it needs to be completely redone.
And then property reassessment, the political hand grenade. Want to scare the crap out of our State politicians running for election/re-election next year? Ask them what they think about statewide property reassessment.
It is true that New Castle County has not had a property reassessment since 1983 and Sussex hasn’t had one since 1974. It’s also true that reassessment would be damned expensive to do but over time, would help out our school districts. The property taxes you pay now in New Castle County are based on what your land and dwelling would have been worth in 1983. In Sussex, imagine that $2.9 million ocean front property in Fenwick sitting there, its owners paying taxes on what it would have been worth in 1974. That needs to change.
Even after everything I’ve just written, there’s still way, WAY more that needs to be changed when it comes to funding schools in Delaware (having Charter schools funded by a line item on your property taxes like VoTechs, creating new tax brackets on incomes over $60k/yr, and more). Those will be a topic for a future post though. I’m sure this riveting foray into the public school system funding world has you all on the edge of your seats wanting more. I don’t want to scare you all with the level of insanity that our school districts have to deal with when it comes to funding, though. At least not yet.