Study: Boost D.C. schools funding by $180 million

October 8, 2013

The District should boost funding for public education by more than 15 percent — or nearly $180 million — to ensure that schools have adequate resources to lift student achievement, according to the preliminary recommendations of a study commissioned by the city government.

The study calls for raising the basic per-pupil allocation, from $9,306 to $11,356, to provide for smaller class sizes, more technology, and more counselors and student-support workers. It also recommends providing more money for “at risk” students.

The recommendations are likely to trigger debate about how much money the schools, which have some of the country’s highest per-pupil spending rates, really need. And they are likely to stir discussion about how the city divides funds among charter and traditional schools, which compete for students and resources.

“This is not going to be easy, but I think it’s important that we’re taking [head-on] the question of what resources it will take to deliver on our goals for kids, and the issue of how [we] can do that equitably across sectors,” Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith wrote in an e-mail.

The study is the result of a 2010 city law that requires an examination of the per-pupil funding formula used to distribute taxpayer dollars to schools. Two outside consulting firms looked at spending patterns of successful D.C. schools and convened panel discussions with dozens of city educators.

The consultants also recommended adding about $3,400 for each student in a new “at risk” category, which includes those who are homeless, in foster care or receiving benefits through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who has been pushing to overhaul school funding as chairman of the Education Committee, said he is largely pleased with the recommendations and will make funding them a “top priority.” But the “at risk” definition is a sticking point, he said, calling it too narrow to reach many students living in poverty.

Catania has introduced a bill that would provide extra dollars for every student eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a program that requires a student’s household income to be less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Families must be far poorer to qualify for TANF, earning less than about 30 percent of the poverty line, he said. “I’m hoping there can be compromise in hammering out the details,” he said.

The study echoes long-standing calls for greater transparency in D.C. school budgets, with all expenditures made public online.

It also attempts to address charter school leaders’ complaints that they’ve been shortchanged because the traditional school system, in addition to per-pupil funding, receives city services worth tens of millions of dollars each year. The consultants recommend incorporating the cost of those services — such as lawyers and building maintenance — into the per-pupil allocation.

Should the recommendations be adopted, the D.C. Public Schools system would receive a net increase of $56.5 million compared with the current fiscal year, and charter schools would see a net increase of $79.2 million.

The city would kick in an additional $43 million to maintain buildings for the traditional school system — at least in the near term. That prospect irked some charter school leaders; it also caused concern among traditional-school advocates, who worry that the subsidy would shrink over time, forcing the school system to use instructional funds to cover maintenance.

School system officials said they recognize that the city faces hard choices and appreciate the chance to comment.

“Establishing fair policies for charter and DCPS schools is challenging. Clearly, DCPS schools operate under a series of requirements that make their work more difficult,” schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said.

Smith said the city can shrink the maintenance subsidy by pushing under-enrolled traditional schools to share space with charters and city agencies. The school system maintains more than 4 million square feet of space that it doesn’t need, the study found.

But Smith said it seems fair to subsidize school system maintenance to some degree. Unlike charter schools, traditional schools — with their pools, athletic fields and meeting spaces — serve as community centers, she said. And the school system must maintain enough buildings to accommodate any D.C. student who wants to enroll.

Smith told school leaders and advocates at a public meeting Monday that city lawmakers are unlikely to make a new $180 million investment all at once and that it would instead have to be phased in over several years.

She said she expects that the recommendations will evolve as her office reviews the study and considers community input. Comments are due Friday.

The study does not address the $3,000-per-student allowance charter schools get to defray facilities costs; consultants said they didn’t have enough information to recommend changes. Charter school leaders have argued for years that the allowance is inadequate compared with the city’s multibillion-dollar effort to modernize traditional schools in recent years.

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