D.C. charter advocates make annual push for funds

April 27, 2013

The District sends more money per student to its traditional schools than to its charter schools, charter officials and advocates told the D.C. Council on Friday, renewing what has become an annual plea for equitable funding.

The hearing before the council’s Education Committee came just days after the publication of a report, paid for by the pro-charter Walton Foundation, that found that charter schools in the District receive about $13,000 less per student than the city’s traditional schools.

“We’re not here to ask for more money. We’re here to ask for uniform per-student funding,” said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), who has lobbied city officials on the issue for more than a decade.

The long-simmering debate over school-funding equity has become an increasingly delicate and important issue for D.C. politicians as charter schools have grown. They now educate 43 percent of the city’s students.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) campaigned in 2010 on a platform of equal funding for charter schools. But D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At-Large), chairman of the newly constituted Education Committee, attacked the mayor’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal on Friday as “legally insufficient” because of continued discrepancies in funding for the two sectors.

Gray administration officials pushed back, saying that the city’s attorney general and chief financial officer had certified the proposed budget as legally sound.

Abigail Smith, acting deputy mayor for education, said officials have taken steps to address inequitable funding, eliminating the tradition of sending large supplemental payments to the school system to fill its mid-year budget holes. Gray officials also have commissioned a study that will examine school funding and recommend changes to ensure fair funding.

The funding gap is partly because of the city’s ambitious school renovation efforts, which are expected to cost more than $9,000 per student next year. Charter schools, meanwhile, receive $3,000 per student in a facilities allowance that they can use to make rent or mortgage payments.

Extra money comes to the traditional school system from outside the per-pupil funding formula, a mechanism meant to ensure that both sectors are funded equally.

Other D.C. agencies pay for school system services such as lawyers and facilities maintenance, for example, saving the system tens of millions of dollars a year and an estimated $80 million next year, according to FOCUS. Charter schools have to pay for those services out of their per-pupil allocation.

Also, charter schools are paid according to their actual audited enrollment. But traditional schools are funded based on projected enrollments, which tend to be overly optimistic. FOCUS estimates that the school system received $142 million between 2009 and 2013 for students it did not actually enroll.

For years, school system officials have maintained that the cushion helps them deal with an influx of students, many from charter schools, who come after enrollment counts are finalized in October. Unlike charter schools, traditional schools are legally obligated to serve all students — just one of many ways in which the two sectors operate under different rules.

“It’s not apples to apples,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who warned that cutting all additional funding to the traditional schools would “wipe them out.”

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