Is It Time To Reset Delaware’s School Funding System?

March 30th, 2009

Category: News

Is there a silver lining in Delaware’s historic economic crisis?  The state is projecting a budget shortfall of $750 million-plus for FY2010.  This is the highest percentage deficit in the country.  It’s likely we’ll be digging out for years to come and, along the way, experiencing painful consequences in our schools.  

But this crisis could shake us from decades of inefficiency and actually save us tens of millions of dollars in the long run.  Last year the Leadership for Education Achievement in Delaware (LEAD) Committee, on which I sat, released two reports about our funding system.  The first, detailed how Delaware could reallocate almost $160 million a year from administrative waste and put it into the classroom.  Our hope then was that these resources could be redirected to other priorities that we know benefit students like early childhood education.  Yet the current economic situation makes that unlikely.  In the short term, though, these savings can help stave off cuts to classrooms and teachers.  And in the long term, after the infusion of new federal dollars goes away in two years, these measures could help us create a more efficient system that maximizes public dollars for years to come. 

In a second LEAD report we looked at how we can make spending decisions as close to the student as possible.  In the next few months we have the opportunity to move away from our current, rigid 60-year-old funding system and lay the groundwork for a more flexible funding system. If our schools are going to be asked to do more with less, they should be given flexibility to spend their resources as they deem most critical, as long as increased autonomy is tied to clear accountability for results.

Other school systems have done just this and know the difference it can make for students.  Edmonton, Alberta, Canada gives its school principals control over 78% of their school budget, yet Delaware gives our principals just 8%.  Edmonton is one of the top-performing school systems in the world, and Delaware is middle of the pack in the U.S.  This simple, but critical difference in funding flexibility gives principals the chance to work with their school communities to design classes and services that respond directly to the needs of their students.  In contrast, the hands of Delaware principals are largely tied by Delaware law.

These are unique times in our state and they require unique solutions.  In my view, the worst thing Delaware could do is to avoid making the difficult but needed changes in the hope that the world we knew a year ago will return. That world is not coming back and if our children are to excel, we need to adapt.  

What do you think?  Is it time for Delaware to hit the reset button on our school funding system?

Paul Herdman



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