The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in Delaware Court of Chancery, accusing the state of violating a requirement in the state constitution to ensure adequate education funding for disadvantaged students.
In a 55-page complaint, attorneys for the civil rights group said state policies favor students in wealthy school districts over those living in poverty. The suit also alleged that students with disabilities and English language learners are not being provided with adequate resources to succeed in school.
According to the ACLU, the failings by state- and county-level officials breached a provision of the Delaware Constitution that guarantees a “general and efficient system of free public schools” in the state.
“Every child deserves a chance to succeed,” Kathleen MacRae, the executive director of the ACLU of Delaware, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “All students have a right to an education that prepares them adequately for college and the world of work.”
The complaint was brought on behalf of the nonprofit education advocacy group Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the Delaware branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It names Gov. John Carney, Secretary of Education Susan Bunting and state Treasurer Kenneth A. Simpler as defendants in the case.
A spokesman for Carney said the governor was reviewing the complaint and planned to discuss public education as a part of his State of the State address and budget presentation this month.
“As Governor Carney has said since the day he took office, he believes that all Delaware children deserve a quality education. He is committed to investing in Delaware’s schools, and providing additional support and resources for schools serving low-income children, English language learners and students with special needs,” Jonathan Starkey, Carney’s communications director said in an email.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Alison May, a spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Education said the department had not seen the complaint but would respond to any litigation filed against it.
“It is the goal of the department to assist Delaware’s schools in preparing every student to succeed in college or career and life,” May said.
The ACLU said test scores for the disadvantaged students registered well below the state’s own benchmarks, showing a clear failure to adequately educate the students.
According to the lawsuit, 64 percent of low-income students, 85 percent of English language learners and 86 percent of students with disabilities did not meet the state standards in grades three through eight for English language arts. At the same time, 74 percent of low-income students, 81 percent of English learners and 89 percent of students with disabilities fell below the state’s math standards in those grades.
The complaint faulted officials for employing a system for public school funding that created disparities between districts and failed to account for greater needs among disadvantaged students.
The filing came less than a year after Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster in a separate case criticized the state’s ongoing failure to reassess property values for more than 30 years, causing the underlying tax base for school districts to remain flat while operational costs have skyrocketed.
While the state does not determine appropriations to individual schools on a per-student basis, the ACLU said that analysis showed that, in at least seven districts, per-student expenditure at a school decreases as the percentage of low-income children in the student body rises
Meanwhile, persistent ”inequality statewide” in teacher pay has made it difficult to retain teachers in low-income areas, where teachers tend to be less experienced than in more affluent areas.
The complaint also said the state does not provide additional financial support for the education of low-income students and English language learners. For students with disabilities, Delaware provides no special education funding in kindergarten through fourth grade, and testing for individualized education programs often go lacking, the ACLU said.
The lawsuit comes just ahead of Carney’s scheduled address to a joint session of the General Assembly on Thursday, where he is expected to outline major policy initiatives for the year.
Among other things, the plaintiffs are seeking permanent injunctions compelling the officials to “establish, fund and maintain a general and efficient system of free public schools that provides all disadvantaged students.”
ACLU attorneys Ryan Tack-Hooper and Karen Lantz are representing the groups, along with Richard H. Morse and Brian Eng of Community Legal Aid Society Inc.
The case is captioned Delawareans for Educational Opportunity v. Carney.