School Funding Remains a Hot Topic in Delaware. Here’s Why

Momentum continues to grow in Delaware for an updated school funding system. And state officials continue to do more than is required by the high-stakes lawsuit that settled several years ago. Check out our recent blogs capturing the updates and progress underway pertaining to our funding system. 

Since then, much has happened: 

Budget Wins. In the still-to-be-passed state budget for Fiscal Year 2024, Governor Carney’s Opportunity Funding initiative—which provides extra support for every multilingual learner (MLL) or low-income student—will increase by $15 million, bringing the line item up to $53 million. This figure represents $3 million more than what is required by the funding lawsuit settlement. 

The RAND Corporation was contracted to undergo three studies on how Opportunity Funds are being spent. They found that funds are being used by schools on things that researchers recommend for improving student outcomes, including increased staffing, smaller class sizes and investments in wraparound and social-emotional services focused on MLLs and students from low-income backgrounds. 

Additionally, funding for Delaware’s Early Childhood Assistance Program (ECAP), the state-supported pre-K system, will double this upcoming fiscal year, expanding pre-K access to more families.  

Legislative Leadership. HS 1 for HB 33, a reintroduction of HS 1 for HB 144, would lower pre-K special education child-to-teacher ratios to align with K-three and four-12 grades as agreed upon by the lawsuit settlement, was funded in the Governor’s Recommended Budget.  

HB 62, a reintroduction of HB 252 from last year, would implement rolling property reassessment every five years to ensure that property taxes (from which school taxes are determined) are up to date and accurate. 

Student advocates from Cape Henlopen High School attended the March 17 Vision Coalition event on school funding.

Events and community engagement. On March 17, the Vision Coalition hosted an event focused on school funding with local and national experts, as well as over 100 members of the community, including non-profit leaders, educators, students, community leaders and others.  

Meanwhile, a recent survey of Delawareans conducted by the Local Journalism Initiative found that:  

  • The majority of respondents think that the state spends too little on improving the state’s education system (64 percent). 
  • Education and schools are considered to be a top issue for respondents. In fact, these are considered to be among the top five problems facing Delaware, with more respondents citing education and schools as a pressing problem than those who cited the unemployment and personal finances, the environment, transportation and infrastructure, housing and real estate, healthcare and insurance, and social issues.   

As the independent assessment being conducted by American Institutes for Research (AIR) continues to progress, the local community continues to be engaged and eager to learn more.  

The Vision Coalition will be holding a second installment of the Equity in Education series on June 12th at 1 p.m. on Why Money Matters in schools, with special guest Julien Lafortune of the Public Policy Institute at UC Berkeley. His research has found that increased funding over multiple years in K-12 education leads to higher test scores, graduation rates, college attendance and adult economic outcomes. His research has also found that how funding is targeted, to students, schools, or districts, matters for student outcomes.  Register for the webinar to learn more here. 

What to Make of the Small Jump in Delaware Public School Enrollment

At a Glance...

– School enrollment in the 2021-2022 school year increased 1.35 percent over the 2020-2021 school year, falling in line with pre-COVID averages.
-This follows Delaware’s first decrease in enrollment in a decade. Nationally, enrollment continues to sag.
-Enrollment directs essential budgeting decisions and policy considerations, especially in Delaware, which utilizes a “unit count” system to fund its schools.

As students head back to school, enrollment numbers and Delaware’s “unit count” begin to come into focus. Last year, we blogged about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted enrollment in Delaware, and pointed out that in the 2020-21 school year, the state saw its first decline in public school enrollment in a decade—particularly in kindergarten and offset by increases in private and home school enrollment.

Enrollment is tied to essential budgeting decisions and policy considerations, so this decline was significant and concerning to policymakers and educators alike. In last year’s analysis, we saw that public district school enrollment declined, but public charter and non-public school enrollment increased, reversing trends we had seen prior. However, from 2020-21 to 2021-22, public school enrollment began to bounce back from the COVID hit, falling back into the pre-pandemic trend of enrollment increases.

National Context

Nationally, K-12 enrollment continues to decline. In the 2020-21 school year, the nationwide drop was roughly three percent. This overall decline continued into the 2021-22 school year.

There are nuances to this decline however, especially when you consider nationwide increases in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment. More detailed reports nationally from the 2021-22 school year are lacking, but experts are predicting a decline in enrollment for the next 10 years nationwide and are urging schools to consider their finances.

This decline can be linked to various factors, including parents choosing to enroll their students in non-public schools, a preference for virtual learning, schools’ COVID-related precautionary measures, but the most often cited reason is the “COVID baby bust” and the choice young adults are making to put off having children, or to not have children at all.

Delaware’s Numbers Heading into the 2022-23 School Year

The 2020-21 school year saw the first decline in enrollment in a decade in Delaware, a 1.7 percent decline. Typical annual increases pre-COVID were between 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent.

In 2021-22, when schools were transitioning back to fully in-person learning, enrollment rose, but remains roughly 2.5 percent behind where it would have been had pre-COVID trends continued.

Overall enrollment in the 2021-22 school year increased 1.35 percent over the 2020-21 school year, falling in line with the average increases year over year pre-COVID. As was seen in the national trends, kindergarten enrollment saw a drastic increase as well, roughly six percent over the prior year, putting kindergarten enrollment back at pre- COVID levels.

Why It Matters

  1. Enrollment and Funding: Enrollment directly affects the funding schools receive for the year. State funding for schools is driven by a count of student attendance in the fall, typically ending around September 30th each year. The state then uses this count to fund schools for the following year – and districts and charters use it to determine how many educators they can hire, which has been a challenge recently. Last year’s decrease in numbers was concerning for schools and their potential funding, but the increase this year could lift that pressure a little bit. This past legislative session also saw funding added for a mid-year unit count, allowing any additional students who enroll beyond that September 30th cut-off, but before January 30th , to be counted.
  2. Enrollment vs Attendance: While enrollment has increased, the question of how many students are actually attending is more difficult to count. The definition of “attendance” has been difficult to pin down throughout the pandemic. One measure is “chronic absenteeism” which is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as “students who have missed more than 15 days of school for any reason during one school year.”

Chronic absenteeism pre-pandemic (2018-19 school year) was the lowest it had been in the prior five years, at 13.24 percent, however, during the first two years of the pandemic, it increased significantly. The 2019-20 school year recorded an average of 15.68 percent of students chronically absent, and the 2020-21 school year had an average of 20.31 percent of students chronically absent.

It’s important to consider the various reasons why students may become chronically absent, and the various barriers and crises families faced due to the pandemic. These crises include: housing insecurity, mental health crises, internet access, technology access and other economic hardships. These barriers disproportionately affect minority students and students from low-income backgrounds.

  1. Delaware in the national context: Delaware is experiencing the opposite of the national trend of decreasing enrollment. The University of Delaware’s CADSR research center predicts growing enrollment continuing through 2040 in the state of Delaware. Still, we’d be wise to watch the predictive factors that may impact enrollment in the future, including birth rates and parent choices to enroll their students in homeschool or other non-public options, and how these factors may affect enrollment—and therefore funding—in the future.


These implications for Delaware’s overall school funding system must be considered in the upcoming assessment (as required by the lawsuit recently settled) as well as when relief funds run out and schools no longer have the funding they have been relying on for several years.

What’s New with Delaware’s Education Funding System?

At a Glance...

-Delaware is still seeing ripple effects of the Delawareans for Educational Opportunity v Carney lawsuit settlement from October 2020.
-Annual boosts to Gov. John Carney’s “Opportunity Funding” initiative have taken shape for the next three fiscal years.
-Property reassessments are underway in all three counties.
-Small but important legislative action could force improvements to Delaware’s school funding system.

The long march to modernize Delaware’s school funding system continues on, as the state continues to see changes stemming from recent actions by Gov. John Carney’s administration and the General Assembly.

One of the major drivers of these changes was the Delawareans for Educational Opportunity v Carney lawsuit settlement from October 2020. The settlement comprises two broad portions: a set of requirements for the state related to school funding—and requirements for counties related to property reassessment. The full timeline for the settlement and the requirements can be found here.

Several of these requirements are underway. County reassessments have begun, Opportunity Funding has been codified and increased year over year since the settlement, and other funds have been allocated as required by the settlement.

Additional actions taken by the General Assembly this session continue to advance equity and support Delaware students. These include counting—and funding—students more than one time per year, which has been approved in the FY23 Budget. Other policies under consideration include adopting rolling property reassessments and decreasing child-to-adult ratios in special education pre-K classrooms.

Settlement Updates: State

Approved for FY23

  • Opportunity Funding: minimum $35 million, a $4.5 million proposed increase over FY22. $5 million of these funds are allocated for mental health and reading supports for students.
  • Teacher Recruitment and Retention: $4 million additional commitment over FY21 allocations to enhance recruitment and retention, with ongoing monetary commitment.


FY24 Commitments

  • Opportunity Funding: a minimum of $50 million must be allocated in the budget ($12 million increase over FY23), the $5 million allocation for mental health and reading supports remains.
  • K-3 Basic Special Education: codify funding structure to be the same as structure for Basic Special Education students in grades four through 12 going forward.
  • Early Education: ECAP (state funded pre-k) funding doubles to $12.2 million.
  • Independent Assessment of Delaware funding system (RFP for vendors with requirements is here) must be completed by January 2024, including an analysis of the system, including comparisons to other states, and recommendations for improvements to equity and efficiency.


FY25 Commitments

  • Opportunity Funding: minimum $60 million must be allocated in the budget ($10 million increase over the minimum requirement for FY 24), the $5 million allocation for mental health and reading supports remains.


Settlement Updates: County

Properties in Delaware have not been assessed in decades for tax purposes, which has created issues of fairness and adequacy for Delaware schools. As of 2022, all counties have contracted with Tyler Technologies to conduct property reassessments, and these reassessments are underway.

  • New Castle County agreed to reassess all properties for tax purposes by July 2023. In the spring of 2021, they began conducting aerial imaging and data collection. Valuation is not anticipated for at least another year, with another year before any impact would be adopted.
  • Kent County has committed to reassessing properties by 2024. Data collection began in October 2021. Valuation analysis will begin in fall 2022, as well as valuation review. The effective date of the new values will be July 1, 2023.
  • Sussex County started their data collection in September 2021, and continued through November 2021. They anticipate to have the project completed by February 15, 2024.


Other Legislative Activity

Efforts are underway at the legislative level beyond just compliance with the lawsuit settlement requirements. Several bills have been introduced to address funding issues and inequities.

HS 1 for HB 54 was introduced to institute an optional mid-year student count to supplement the initial student count normally held at the beginning of every school year to determine school year funding. $2 million has been allocated in the budget to fund these additional needs.

HB 252 would implement rolling property reassessment every five years to ensure that property taxes (from which school taxes are determined) are up to date and accurate.

HS 1 for HB 144 would lower pre-K special education child-to-teacher ratios to align with K-three and four-12 grades as agreed upon by the lawsuit.

Meet Julia Zammith 

Hello! My name is Julia Zammith and I am a research associate at Rodel. I am very excited to join the team and use my experience to support and impact the education landscape here in Delaware. I have always been passionate about education and equity and have always seen myself working towards improving education for all students.

My education journey was different than most, which allows me to bring a different perspective when looking at education issues. I was fortunate enough, through my French heritage, to go to a private French American school in San Francisco. Early on in my life I noticed the importance of education and how critical a quality education is to a child’s development and future. I went on to study International Relations at American University in Washington D.C., where I spent time working on the government relations team at the Educational Testing Service. I gained invaluable experience working in the education policy space and understanding the national education landscape.

After graduation, I was accepted into Teach for America, and spent two years teaching high school math and social studies in Wilmington, DE. My time as an educator offered me even more perspective into the importance of quality education systems for both educators and students.

I am excited to join the team at Rodel and contribute to ensuring that students have access to quality education, experiences and key resources for them to be successful in college, career and beyond.