Earlier this year, civil rights groups sued Delaware over education funding for low-income, disadvantaged students. In this blog, we’ll break down what you need to know about property reassessment in Delaware.
1. What does property reassessment have to do with education?
About 27 percent of all public education funding in Delaware comes from property taxes. Three-quarters of those property taxes collected go directly to districts, which have the flexibility to spend these dollars on new buildings, teachers, and educational materials. Many of these resources are used to keep up with increasing enrollment and costs of operations, salaries, and programs.
Property taxes are levied based on a percentage of the most recently assessed value of the property.
2. What is the impact of outdated property reassessments?
Property values—including home prices—are obviously not static. We know that market values can fluctuate widely over time. Without regular reassessments, the burden of taxation may be unequally distributed.
For example, in Sussex County, property taxes haven’t been reassessed since 1974. At that time Seaford had significant industry and some wealth, while the beaches were not the destination they are today. The unevenness hits taxpayers and schools alike.
3. When were the most recent property reassessments in Delaware?
4. What is the law regarding property reassessment?
State law requires that tax assessments be based on the actual value of property and charges the counties with inspecting property to adjust valuation. (Delaware Code Title 9, Chapter 83), but there is no state policy in Delaware establishing how often reassessments must take place.
5. How do we compare nationally?
As of 2010, Delaware was one of nine states that did not have state provisions for when reassessments take place. Most states follow an annual to five-year schedule.
6. What solutions has been proposed in Delaware?
Many groups in Delaware over the years have proposed rolling statewide reassessments, such as the Vision Coalition, Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, and LEAD Committee.
The 2008 Legislative Task Force on Property Tax Reassessment put forward detailed recommendations for how to implement consistent, rolling reassessment. They recommend a 10 percent cap on annual revenue increases that is consistent with the current language in Title 14 of the Delaware Code.
7. So what have been the barriers to change?
Political will has been cited throughout the years as a barrier. With updated, accurate property tax rates, some homeowners could wind up paying more—though others could pay less or experience no change—and few politicians want to be on the hook for raising their constituents’ taxes.
Additionally, the cost associated with training and manpower needed to reassess properties could land anywhere between $20 million to $40 million according to a 2007 New Journal article.
However, in other states, legal action has successfully catalyzed change.
For more information:
2008 Legislative Task Force on Property Tax Reassessment Final Report
Will a judge force Delaware politicians to do their jobs?, Opinion by Matt Albright, The News Journal, 9/14/2018
Reassessment would bring fairness back to Delaware’s property taxes, Opinion by Harry Themal, The News Journal, 5/31/2018
Why property taxes are unfair in Delaware News Journal article, 7/1/07
Delaware Education Funding: A Summary of the Current System and Recommended Changes, Resource by the Rodel Foundation, 11/2015
11 Key Quotes from Education Funding Lawsuit Opinion, Blog by Neil Kirschling, Rodel Foundation, 12/6/2018
Lawsuit background regarding property reassessment:
8. What case is being made in the lawsuit about property reassessment in Delaware?
“The state has designed a school funding system that relies in part on local taxes, but it limits the ability of school districts to raise sufficient local funds by disregarding the lack of a regular property reassessment. This means that local education taxes are based on property values determined as if it were still 1986 in Kent County and earlier in the other counties. Because school taxes do not accurately reflect current property values and are locked in at artificially low levels, local districts must regularly expend time and resources asking district residents to approve an increase in the tax rate, just to keep up with inflation and expanding enrollment.”
9. What is the status?
According to the ACLU website, “On October 5, 2018, the Court of Chancery decided that part of our case should proceed on its merits and struck down the defendants’ motion to dismiss. A decision has not yet been made about the other portions of the lawsuit. See additional news coverage here and here. Recently, the City of Wilmington asked to join as a plaintiff on the lawsuit. The next expected step would be for the court to make a decision on the City of Wilmington’s request, and to establish a schedule for the remaining steps leading to a final decision.
Last week, Vice Chancellor Travis Laster rejected the state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit claiming the state’s current school funding formula is unconstitutional. In addition to explaining why the court has legal authority to rule on the case under the Education Clause of the state constitution, Judge Laster also had lots to say about Delaware’s education funding system in general.
Didn’t read the 135-page opinion? Here are 11 quotes from Judge Laster that jumped out to me:
On why this is a systemic problem:
“The plaintiffs assert that the ‘system of public schools’ is failing Disadvantaged Students, not the hardworking and well-intentioned professionals who do their best within the constraints that the system imposes.”
“In Delaware…the educational funding system generally provides more support for more privileged children than it provides for impoverished children. Put differently, schools with more Disadvantaged Students receive less financial support from the State than schools with fewer Disadvantaged Students. Likewise, school districts with poorer tax bases receive less funding from the State than school districts with wealthier tax bases.”
Put differently, schools with more Disadvantaged Students receive less financial support from the State than schools with fewer Disadvantaged Students. Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster
On how this effects low income students, for example:
“For many of Delaware’s public schools, an inverse relationship exists between the number of low-income students in a school and the amount of funding that goes to the school: The more low-income students in a school, the less State funding the school receives.”
“Given the incremental needs of low-income students relative to their wealthier peers, schools that predominantly serve low-income students logically should receive more resources than schools that do not.”
“Unlike thirty-five other states, Delaware does not provide any additional funding for low-income students. The unit funding approach that Delaware uses does not take low-income status into account.”
On English learners:
“Precisely because these students are learning English, they need more resources and support to succeed. Schools who serve larger numbers of students who are learning English as a second language logically should reserve more resources than schools that do not. Delaware does not provide any additional funding for educating students who are learning English as a second language. Delaware is one of only four states that does not allocate any additional funding to serve the unique needs of these students.”
Given the incremental needs of low-income students relative to their wealthier peers, schools that predominantly serve low-income students logically should receive more resources than schools that do not.Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster
On the inequities baked into the unit system:
To counter the effects of poverty, one might expect that Delaware would provide more funding to school districts with less valuable tax bases. To its credit, Delaware offers Division III funding to offset the financial advantage possessed by wealthier districts. But the effects of Division III funding are swamped by the far larger effect of the Division I funds that pay personnel costs.
Under the existing system, Delaware provides more funding to districts with wealthier tax bases than it does to poorer districts. In 2013–14, for example, the tax basis in the Brandywine School District was 1.5 times more valuable per student than the tax base in the Woodbridge School District. Yet the State provided funding to the Brandywine School District that was equivalent to $1,694 more per pupil than the funding it provided to the Woodbridge School District. During the same year, the value of the tax base in the Appoquinimink School District exceeded the value of the tax base in the Caesar Rodney School District by more than $100,000 per student, yet the State allocated funding to the Appoquinimink School District that was equivalent to $450 more per pupil than it provided to the Caesar Rodney School District.
On the prescriptiveness of the unit system:
“With limited exceptions, the “unit funding” approach treats all students as if they were the same. If a High-Need School wishes to hire reading specialists or counselors, it has less unit funding to pay for teachers and other personnel. To make the numbers work, High-Need Schools must find the money by cutting elsewhere.”
“If school districts had greater flexibility in deploying funds, they could shift money within districts to support their High-Need Schools. State law effectively forecloses that option by requiring that 98% of the funding generated by a school’s units be used at the school accounting for the units.”
On the “state-level consensus” and years of commission and task force recommendations:
“The various reports exhibit a remarkable consensus about the key steps that the State needs to take to address the problems with Delaware’s public schools and improve educational outcomes for Disadvantaged Students. Foremost among the recommendations is to restructure how Delaware funds its public schools.”
For more on the suit brought by Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the Delaware NAACP, read on here.
Being a student is a very broad concept. Each of us experience school and life differently. As a result, we cannot assume a student’s struggles or successes come from the same place.
During my journey from Venezuela to William Penn High School, I got to meet peers from the most diverse backgrounds; some from Turkey, Poland, Congo, Wilmington, Dominican Republic—almost from every continent. Talking to them, I realized that although our journeys were unique—we all had something in common. Compared to our native English-speaking classmates, we English learning students have fewer opportunities available to us, despite the fact that we require additional resources to succeed.
I developed more curiosity about the topic. In April, I spoke at the Education Funding Summit hosted by the Education Equity Delaware coalition. During this experience, I learned that Delaware provides no funding for EL students. Even when it is required to ensure students are making progress, there are no requirements for how to support ELs in academic subject areas, and 10 percent of ELs spend more than six years in the EL program, while the average must be three years.
Being an intern at Rodel for the summer gave me a great chance to dig deeper. I interviewed seven students to learn more about their experiences in school. I believe strongly that it is important for students to have a voice in this important issue.
My first day in school the only thing I remember is that I didn’t know English at all and no one was helping me.Delaware English Learner Student
Students were from a variety of schools as well as backgrounds. Some interviews were by phone, Google forms or on paper. However, the actual value was the difference between each response.
One of the student’s responses is the perfect summary of an English learner’s first experience in school: ‘‘My first day in school the only thing I remember is that I didn’t know English at all and no one was helping me.’’ The language barrier can have other pitfalls, another student told me: ‘‘When I wake up,” he said, “the only thing I see on my phone notification label is my email. It’s difficult because I don’t have no one to talk to.’’
Violence was another factor that minority students described at their school environments. ‘‘The majority of the schools I’ve attended have had major violence issues,” said one student from Wilmington. “It’s hard to flourish and excel in a violent environment that is supposed to be safe and nourishing.”
Students expressed how hard success seems to attain as an outsider. But their resolve was stronger. Once student said, “I’ve been showing people that I am able to go higher because most of them stopped me from going to higher classes.”
On the other hand, students that attend more affluent schools did not face as many barriers. ‘‘I have not experienced any challenge, and I have seen peers struggle financially which hinders them from having equal opportunity,” one student said.
All EL student experiences should be like that: a smooth and fair process, no matter your background, income-level, or native language. What if the educational system provided equal resources to all students? Just imagine the possibilities of having access to great teachers, guidance and school counselors, metal health, rigorous coursework, and more. These resources matter for all students—especially ELs.
Hola! My name is Valentina Maza. I am a native of Venezuela and currently a rising senior at William Penn High School.
Two years ago I moved to the United States by myself to pursue my dream of going to a top college in America. Soon after I arrived I realized that achieving my dream would require much more than a great amount of hard work, self-advocacy, and persistence. I learned that there was the so-called “opportunity gap” that set students from immigrant backgrounds and students who are English learners, on a very different academic path. I also learned that without prompt policy changes, especially those that pertain to equitable school funding, opportunities for students like me in this country will continue to be gravely limited and not aligned with our potential.
Over the past two years I have been working hard to make sure I can squeeze myself into a very narrow window of opportunity. I have been selected to be a part of such prestigious opportunities like TeenSHARP, a program that guides me along my academic journey toward my goal of entering a top university. At TeenSHARP I also founded a Spanish club called ‘Hola.’ I became the president of the ASPIRA club at my school, a position that allowed me to connect with and advocate for other Spanish-speaking students. I have the honor of being the only student member of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission and the governor’s Advisory Council on English Learners. I was a semifinalist in the Diamond Challenge where I created my own social venture with my best friend, Tatiana Romero. Our project was called: Education in Times of Immigration.
During the last weeks of the summer, I will be working as an intern with the Rodel Foundation. Fortunately, Rodel gave me the opportunity to work on issues that connect with my life experiences and my passions. For instance: postsecondary success exemplifies an ambition of mine, and now as a part of Rodel a purpose of action. Moreover, I will lend my perspectives as a former EL student to the organization’s ongoing advocacy for equitable opportunities for English learners.
While I am thrilled to have these experiences, I also know how few students have access to them. That is why I am excited about working with Rodel this summer. Learning more about how to advocate for students so that every single one of us can live up to our potential will be a huge step forward in my life.