ACLU lawsuit: Wilmington students disenfranchised by system

A wide-ranging lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware charges that that the state’s school funding system unconstitutionally deprives poor, disabled and non-English speaking students of an adequate education.

(In the video clip above, ACLU legal director Ryan Tack-Hooper discusses various aspects of the lawsuit with Delaware Education Reporter Cris Barrish for this week’s episode of “First,” WHYY’s television newsmagazine.)

But one section of the 55-page lawsuit, filed in January, says it’s not just the funding system that’s illegal. The way Wilmington schools are governed also violates the Delaware Constitution.

The ACLU is suing on behalf of the Delaware NAACP and a citizens group. Beyond the plaintiff’s claim that not enough financial resources are directed to disadvantaged children, they contend Wilmington students and their parents don’t get a fair shake.

Until 1978, Wilmington had its own district, but as a result of the landmark 1978 federal desegregation order, the mostly black and Latino children were split among four mostly suburban districts. One consequence: their political power is diffused, leaving kids and their families disenfranchised, Tack-Hooper said.

That means that although there a lot of students in the city they don’t constitute the majority of students in any school district. School districts make decisions about where schools will be built. They make decisions about how much resources go to different schools. They also make schoolwide policies, like discipline.

Tack-Hooper and his clients contend the needs of city students, most of whom attend district schools outside Wilmington, are “less urgent to the school boards” whose members are picked by all district residents who vote.

That disparity hurts poor city students, who trail their more-affluent counterparts in math, English and science proficiency.

“The basic principle of democracy is that the people who are affected should be making the decisions. We think that if the people of Wilmington were more empowered to control their districts, they would probably make better decisions for the kids for the people who are affected by them.”

The ACLU isn’t advocating for a return to one city district, Tack-Hooper said, just for the resources needed to close the achievement gap.

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