Closing 15 D.C. schools is a first step in what will be a larger effort by the school system to reorganize resources, find new efficiencies and offer stronger academic programs across the city, Chancellor Kaya Henderson says.
That effort is informed by the work of Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization, Henderson told the D.C. Council’s education committee. DCPS commissioned ERS to study the school system’s schools and budgets and suggest changes.
ERS recommended a series of changes that it says may save the school system close to $80 million, which could then be reinvested in improving instruction and academic offerings.
The suggested changes include closing small schools; paring back non-instructional staff; cutting central office costs and costs associated with special-education administration; raising class sizes in non-core classes; and eliminating automatic raises given to teachers for education credits and experience.
Henderson outlined the recommendations for the council Wednesday, but cautioned that the school system may not act on all of them. She also said that ERS had provided general guidance, but hadn’t suggested specific schools to be closed.
“ERS has provided us good direction with a strong research backing, not a step-by-step set of directions to improve,” the chancellor said. “As such, we may not implement all of their recommendations and certainly won’t do so in the upcoming year. We also do not anticipate that our savings will map precisely to their projections.”
Still, the recommendations offer a glimpse of some changes that might be on the horizon for D.C. schools. You can read the final ERS memo, which Henderson gave council members Wednesday, here.
The memo highlights an important budget challenge that DCPS will face due to its commitment to merit pay for highly rated teachers. If the school system meets a goal for 90 percent of its teacher force to be effective or highly effective by 2017, it will have to find an extra $38 million to fund the additional merit raises and bonuses according to ERS.
The costs of merit pay were initially funded by private donations, but now have been absorbed by the school system — a shift that community activists argue has stretched school budgets and resulted in large class sizes, especially at the high school level.
Many of the ERS proposals and conclusions are likely to generate debate, including its analysis of the District’s spending on under-enrolled schools.
The ERS analysis suggests that small schools (those smaller than 350 students) are far more expensive for DCPS to operate than larger schools (those larger than 550) — to the tune of $1,400 more per student in elementary school and $2,300 more per student in K-8 schools.
That contradicts a recent study by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which found that the city is spending little extra on small schools.
The two groups used different methodologies to arrive at their different conclusions. DCFPI analyzed only general education spending funded by local dollars, leaving out special-education spending and other federal programs because those depend on student populations that vary widely from school to school.
ERS factored in special-education and other federal spending and concluded that those programs operate less efficiently in small schools than in large schools. ERS also factored in some costs that are normally reported as central-office costs but are actually spent at the school level, such as security and after-school coordinators. More details on ERS’s methodology are here.
Outside of dollars, ERS says that the District’s small schools prevent the kind of teacher teamwork and flexible student groups that schools need to improve.
“I credit ERS with challenging and expanding our thinking related to school consolidation,” Henderson said Wednesday.