A few months ago, I set out to answer a few questions that should have been simple: how much money do Delaware’s lowest-performing schools get from the state and federal governments, and how do they use their resources to ensure their students’ success?
Instead, my attempt to follow the money—$1.4 billion altogether—took me down a path full of misdirection, bureaucratic walls, and legalese. The experience confirmed a sad fact about Delaware’s education system: there is no real accountability in Delaware school spending, especially when it comes to our lowest performing schools and the outcomes of their students.
For many of us advocates for a high-quality education for all students, the questions I was seeking to answer are fundamental to the work of improving schools. We know our highest-need schools need the resources that lead to success. We also know that our schools need to spend their money in ways that will actually close long-standing gaps in academic achievement and opportunity. Without that information, our calls for more resources are are thin on actual figures and context.
We’re mostly green when it comes to school and district money. Unless we start asking questions.
That’s what I did. On March 5 of this year, I asked the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE):
What is the total amount of funds the Christina School District was/is eligible to receive for their Priority Schools since 2014? How does this compare with the actual amounts they have received to date? See the spreadsheet that you provided me with on 10/5/17. In one email I have received via FOIA, David Blowman references “1.4 million” the district is eligible for. Is this SIG money? If so, how much did they receive and where else was that money disbursed?
I’d like to know how much money has been given to each of the priority and focus schools (or given to the districts for their priority and focus schools) to date since 2014. I’m looking for any funding beyond the normal unit funding. I’d like this to include state grants, opportunity grants, etc. I would like this by year and to have the dates when money was disbursed to districts indicated.
I’d like to see any reports or correspondence the district or priority schools have sent to the DDOE since 2014 providing updates on their progress. I would also like to see any reports or correspondence from the DDOE to those schools about their progress or with feedback for improvement.
Finally, I’d like any reports you have on how the priority schools have spent their money from 2014 to date.
A representative from the DDOE contacted me by phone shortly after and said that my request was a bit difficult because they do not track the money they disburse all the way to the school level.
The representative asked me to refine my request to specific grants (e.g. Opportunity Grants) to make it easier to fulfill my request and recommended I contact the Christina School District directly. I cannot refine my request, I explained, because I am unaware of the different sources of money the DDOE could have sent the Priority Schools to begin with.
On March 7, a DDOE representative sent me this spreadsheet and four business days later they sent another note:
“Kim’s team is working to pull a report of a full year’s of transactions with Christina so you can see what we have in our system. As we discussed last week, because our funding goes to the LEA, not the school, we can’t search the system just for the school. Then we can do the other years if it is what you think the report is what you want.” (emphasis added)
On March 20, they sent an estimate for a search of DDOE emails to find and provide some of the information I had requested.
All appeared to be on track—until I received this message from the DDOE on April 3:
“Because your request involves records related to pending litigation that the Delaware Department of Education is responding to in court, your request is denied.”
Shocking. The DDOE expressed how difficult it was to track the money they allocate to schools, communicated with me for a full month as if they were going to fulfill my request and then found a legal loophole to justify withholding information. Because the ACLU filed a lawsuit about school funding in January, the Department was doing an about-face and denying my full request—even the inquiries that weren’t about funding!
Not to be deterred, I quickly researched the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) pending litigation exception. Then I filed a different kind of request—one with the Attorney General’s office, for an investigation into the DDOE’s denial of my request.
I expressed in my request that I understood the pending litigation exception to apply when “it is exclusively about litigators and litigants looking for materials that might help them in court.”
As part of the investigation, the Department was given a chance to respond; they claimed their use of the exception was justified on the grounds that I could be secretly working alongside the ACLU on their funding lawsuit as the executive director of DelawareCAN or planning my very own lawsuit. Neither, of course, is true, and I wonder what excuse they would have concocted for another concerned citizen without a leadership role at a nonprofit.
I sent my final response to the Attorney General’s office shortly thereafter noting that: “My work as a citizen advocate in this state is very public; it is totally independent of the ACLU and the plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit, and it long predates the filing of that lawsuit.”
On May 4, the Attorney General’s office issued its opinion which included:
“The record is devoid of any evidence that you intend to use FOIA in order to assist a party opposing DOE in the pending litigation…DOE has failed to sustain its burden to prove that this portion of the requested records are non-public. As such, and given the breadth of your request, I am not satisfied that DOE’s response comported with FOIA…..Based upon the record, it is my determination that the DOE’s wholesale denial of your request violated FOIA. However, I’m unable to determine whether, or to what extent, the exemption applies.” (emphasis added)
Victory! Or maybe not. The opinion went far enough to acknowledge the Department violated the Freedom of Information Act—but was nebulous enough to leave me with little recourse for getting my answers on school spending, outside of starting the months-long process all over again.
I still don’t know the total scope of resources Delaware provides to its lowest-performing schools, or how those resources are spent in the schools. But I’ve learned loads about the inadequacies in the state’s approach to tracking, monitoring and holding schools accountable for spending state and federal funds. I’ve also learned the lengths to which state officials will go to keep the public from connecting the dots—and following the money.
The good news is, I am not the only person looking for real information about Delaware school spending. A bill introduced by Senator Dave Sokola’s—SB 172— would require greater fiscal transparency at the school level. It’s on track to pass this week in Delaware’s General Assembly. It would also require districts and charter schools to use a uniform, statewide approach for reporting expenditures.
We can be glad to know the days of greater transparency are ahead. But remember: we cannot legislate our way to a bureaucratic culture committed to real transparency, openness and respect for the public’s right to know about the workings of their government. That starts at the top, with our governor and DDOE leadership. (See examples here and here and here). It’s their responsibility to set a different tone. Until then, we must continue holding them to a higher standard.
Update 7/2/18 : Senate Bill 172 passed early in the morning on July 1st and is on the way to the Governor’s desk. I also emailed a similar FOIA request to Christina School District. The response I received so far: “Your second request is not a request for public records, but is instead an interrogatory and is denied.”