Delaware Public Media | by Larry Nagengast
Much of what is in this week’s education funding lawsuit settlement, including the funding elements, require the Delaware General Assembly’s approval.
Contributor Larry Nagengast talked with a number of legislators this week to gauge their support.
The transition to a younger, more diverse composition of the General Assembly may well have contributed to Gov. John Carney’s willingness to reach a settlement in the school finance suit filed by Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the NAACP Delaware State Conference.
While lawmakers and others who have been following the case acknowledged that they cannot read Carney’s mind, they generally agreed with University of Delaware public policy expert Dan Rich that the turnover that began in the 2018 elections and is expected to continue on Nov. 3 “leads to greater confidence that what will be recommended by the governor will be approved.”
“There was a group in the legislature that already recognized that [funding and education equity issues] were a problem. We were not at a critical mass, but we might have it now,” says veteran state Sen. David Sokola, a Newark Democrat and member of the Senate Education Committee.
Another Newark Democrat, Rep. John Kowalko, said it was “common sense” for Carney to reach a settlement because “it was inevitable” that the Court of Chancery would have ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
In years past, most recently in 2016, the General Assembly has been the major stumbling block to education reform initiatives. Four years ago, after the State Board of Education voted to support the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission’s plan for weighted funding to benefit disadvantaged students – a key issue in the finance suit – and to reduce the number of school districts serving the city of Wilmington, the proposal died due to a combination of opposition from suburban New Castle County legislators and a state budget shortfall.
Had the General Assembly’s composition remained the same, it is likely that Carney would have a harder time persuading its members to endorse the additional spending and new legislation he promised to propose in the settlement agreement.
The changes began in 2018 with the election of four Democrats, Laura Sturgeon of Brandywine Hundred and Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman of Wilmington to the Senate, and Nnamdi Chukwuocha of Wilmington and Melissa Minor-Brown of New Castle to the House. Sturgeon, a retired teacher, chairs the Senate Education Committee, with Lockman as vice-chair. Chukwuocha and Minor-Brown serve on the House Education Committee.
Not only are more progressives in line to take office after the Nov. 3 elections but two longtime Democratic leaders, Senate Majority Leader David McBride and House Education Committee Chair Earl Jaques, were defeated in September primary elections by younger, more liberal candidates.
“This might be the perfect storm of factors to get it done this time,” Lockman said. “We have a lot of education-oriented legislators, and we’re getting more all the time. And the number of progressive legislators will increase this year.”
Sturgeon shares Lockman’s optimism, but not necessarily her confidence. “All the new progressive candidates haven’t made education a cornerstone of their campaigns, so I’m not sure where they would fall in,” she said.
“Education funding is so complicated, and [suggestions about] the ways to fix education are all over the map,” she added.