‘Levy Report’: DCPS gets millions more than charters

January 17, 2012

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi.

There wasn’t much mystery about what came to be known in the charter community as “The Levy Report.” It showed that DCPS received operating funds not available to charter schools. So the city’s two leading charter advocacy groups, FOCUS (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools) and the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools hired Levy so that they could push her findings into public view. Among them is that DCPS receives between $72 million and $127 million a year in operating funds that public charter schools do not.

The money comes to DCPS from outside the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, the legal mechanism designed to ensure that all public and public charter school students are funded equally. The current “base” amount is $8,943 per student, which is weighted according to grade level and for children with additional needs, such as special education or limited English proficiency.

Some of the extra support comes in the form of mid-year appropriations to cover DCPS overspending — like the $21 million Mayor Vincent Gray proposed to give the system last month. It also includes the value of in-kind services DCPS receives from other city agencies for functions that are supposed to be financed within the formula, such as building maintenance (covered by the Department of General Services) and legal services (provided by the Office of the Attorney General). Charter schools generally cover these costs with their formula allocations.

Other money is the result of differences in budgeting practices. DCPS is funded each spring for the following school year based on enrollment projections. If the actual enrollment is lower than projected, which is usually the case, the system's budget is not reduced. Charter schools are funded by the city in quarterly installments based on actual enrollment. If it declines, allotments are cut.

FOCUS has sent the report to the Public Education Finance Reform Commission, formed by the D.C. Council in 2010 to look at these kinds of issues. Its next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening. In a joint statement issued Friday with the report, FOCUS executive director Robert Cane and Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, said:

“These payments violate the requirement of D.C. law that DCPS and the public charter schools receive equal funding on a per-student basis. They also violate principles of equity, which require that we give each of our school children an equal chance to succeed regardless of which public school he or she attends.”

The report comes from two groups that want every public penny they can get for charters. So it notes only in passing that public charter schools also receive money from outside the local funding formula--from federal grants and private foundations. Some charter schools have collected significant sums from private foundations, as have the D.C. organizations promoting the charter movement. FOCUS, for example, received $567,000 from the Walton Foundation in 2010, according to a listing on the Walton site.

Levy also reports that charters are often excluded from services traditionally provided by other city agencies to DCPS without charge. The Metropolitan Police Department, for example, has 46 “resource officers” assigned to help with security at DC public schools, but only 11 at public charters. The Department of Mental Health has 30 full-time specialists serving non-special education students at 41 public schools, and none at charters, according to Levy.

The report also addresses charter school facilities, even though the issue is not part of the commission’s charge. Because charters do not use District-backed bonds to finance their buildings, they receive an additional per-pupil facilities allotment, currently $2,800, which is used to lease buildings or to help secure independent financing. Levy cites a 2008 OSSE study that found charter school facilities are “far more likely to be crowded and to lack adequate educational spaces such as a gymnasium, library, art room or other specialty spaces.” According to 2009 D.C. Council testimony by the Public Charter School Board, the average charter school provided 100 square feet of space per student, much lower than DCPS standards.

FOCUS is recommending that the allowance be set at $3,000 per student, with a construction cost inflation escalator to help charters get bank financing for construction.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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