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Delaware Judge Issues Strong Adequacy Ruling

In a scathing 133-page decision that excoriated the legal positions taken by the state defendants, Delaware Chancery Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster last week denied the state’s motion to dismiss the substantive educational adequacy aspects of the complaint in Delawareans for Educational Opportunity v.Carney. Judge Laster had previously denied the state’s motion todismiss the tax issues raised by the case.

At the outset of his decision, Judge Laster emphasized that according to the complaint, on the state’s own proficiency exams, in 2016-2017 only 25%  of low income students, 7% of students with disabilities, and 5% of English language learners achieved proficiency in eight grade math, and that similar results occurred in other subjects and at other grade levels. Unlike thirty-five other states, he wrote, Delaware provides no additional financial support for educating low-income students and unlike forty-six other states, Delaware provides virtually no additional financial support for educating students who are learning English as a second language.

In addition, Judge Laster noted that in Delaware schools with more disadvantaged students have larger classes, fewer specialists, fewer counselors, and insufficient dual-language teachers, and that the complaint also alleges that many disadvantaged students attend schools that have become re-segregated by race and class.

Although the plaintiffs will have to prove all of these facts by a preponderance of evidence at the trial, the Court ruled on a number of major legal issues that now have become the law of the case. Most notably, Judge Later rejected the state’s broad and vague interpretation of the terms “general” and “efficient” in the state constitution’s education clause, stating that under the state’s interpretation:

[T]he State could corral Disadvantaged Students into warehouses, hand out one book for every fifty students, assign some adults to maintain discipline, and tell the students to take turns reading to themselves. Because the State does not think the Education Clause says anything about the quality of education, even this dystopian hypothetical would satisfy their version of the constitutional standard.

Accordingly, he held that:

In my view, the plain language of the Education Clause mandates that the State establish a system of free public schools, and it uses the term “schools” in accordance with its ordinary and commonly understood meaning—as a place where students obtain an education. The adjectives “general and efficient” relate to and function in service of this noun. Consequently, when the Delaware Constitution mandates that the State create and maintain “a general and efficient system of free public schools,” it contemplates a system that educates students and produces educated citizens. The system of public schools must actually provide schooling.

The Court also analyzed equity and adequacy decisions in other states and found that 31 state courts had held that there is qualitative dimension to the state constitution’s education clause and that all 13 states that had language similar to Delaware’s had also found such a qualitative dimension, Judge Laster also made the interesting observation that although the U.S. Supreme Court has not held that Brown v. Board of Education prohibits de facto school segregation, in the context of a state education adequacy case, Brown does imply that a racially segregated school can not be adequate and effective.

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