All D.C. students to ride Metro buses for free

June 28, 2013

All D.C. students will be able to ride Metro buses for free starting in the fall, the D.C. Council decided this week as part of a broader plan to spend a windfall of $50 million in unexpected revenue.

The council also made new investments in school technology, school-based mental health and adult literacy. In addition, more infants and toddlers will have access to early childhood education, and D.C. Public Schools will get money to upgrade its student information system.

The extra dollars will also flow to non-education initiatives, including to aid senior citizens and promote the arts and moviemaking in the District.

The council improved the list of spending initiatives Wednesday only after an alternative plan, offered by council member David Catania (I-At Large), was narrowly defeated.

Catania sought to spend most of the extra money on schools by increasing the per-pupil allocation for poor children, a move he said would help close the city’s wide achievement gap. He introduced a budget amendment would have sent schools an additional $32 million, or $558 for every child who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals.

The proposal touched off nearly an hour of debate. Supporters argued that the council should grab the opportunity to make a difference for the city’s neediest kids, but some opponents questioned whether funneling more money to schools would improve achievement.

Others argued that while it makes sense to increase funding for poor children, the council needs an opportunity for full deliberation before making such a substantial change to the school funding formula.

“Let’s get the number right, and let’s have a better process to do this,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).

Mendelson said other council members had been discussing favored spending initiatives for weeks in anticipation of the extra dollars, but there was “not even a whisper” of Catania’s proposal.

Catania began circulating drafts of his plan Tuesday, the day after city officials announced the extra revenue. Initially he sought $744 per child, but that number had shrunk by Wednesday as he made room for other spending priorities favored by colleagues. Mendelson said the changing number was a sign that the proposal needed more thought.

The proposal failed on a 7 to 6 vote. Voting in favor of Catania’s proposal were mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7).

Catania criticized his colleagues and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) for moving too slowly, saying that states such as Texas, for example, have increased per-pupil funding for poor students. “So congratulations — we are now behind Texas,” he said.

Wednesday’s debate was only the beginning of what is likely to be an extended public debate about school funding in the District.

Catania has introduced a bill calling for an unspecified increase in funding for poor children starting in fall 2014. A hearing on that bill is scheduled for next week. Meanwhile Gray administration officials have commissioned a study, due in the fall, on how the formula should be tweaked.

Here’s a rundown of education initiatives in the spending plan the council passed Wednesday, previously reported by my colleague Mike DeBonis:

• $11 million for increase access to early childhood education, including a day care subsidy increase;

• $2 million to expand school-based mental health services;

• $3.1 million to offer a 100 percent Metrobus subsidy for students;

• $797,000 to expand the Metro subsidy for students from 18 to 21 years old who are still attending high school;

• $4 million to expand adult literacy and career and technology education programs;

• $4 million for a Schools Technology Fund, to be distributed to D.C. Public Schools and charter schools on a per-pupil basis;

• $2.8 million to fund the upgrade of the DCPS student information computer system; and

• $1 million to improve the Shaed Elementary School field.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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