WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15: Khalid Abdul-Qawi, left, looks on as Jonte Smith, center, and Mikail Williams, right, raise their hands in response to a question posed by their sixth grade earth science teacher, Antoinette Brock at the See Forever Foundation & Maya Angelou Public Charter School on Thursday December 15, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 4

A STUDY by the D.C. government examining how public money is appropriated to students in the city’s traditional and charter schools concluded there were great disparities between the two sectors. Not only is this unfair but, as the study determined, it is “contrary to D.C. law.” How, then, can a spokesman for the attorney general’s office dismiss as “without merit” a lawsuit seeking redress? An even more perplexing question is why city officials who promised to bring fairness to education funding failed to act, thus necessitating this unfortunate court action.

A lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court on behalf of D.C. public charter schools by the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools alleges the city is in violation of a requirement that charter and traditional schools be funded by a uniform per-student amount annually. The formula, part of the 1995 D.C. School Reform Act establishing charters, is supposed to ensure that students at the same grade level or requiring the same level of special services receive the same public funds.

According to the suit, charter schools receive about $2,150 less per student than their traditional counterparts every year, resulting in a loss of $770 million since fiscal 2008. The disparities, which result from supplemental payments or in-kind services from other agencies to the school system, have been a source of tension. Charter advocates, as The Post’s Emma Brown reported, had long considered legal action but held off in the hopes — naive, as it turned out — that officials who had acknowledged the problem would do something about it.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who campaigned on a promise of eliminating the disparity, has been more supportive of charters than his predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), but a fundamental imbalance persists. We don’t doubt that the differences between the two sectors complicate the question of how to reasonably finance schools, as some advocates for traditional schools argue. Charters are able to operate with more flexibility and mostly without union labor. But rather than penalizing a sector that has done more with less, officials should be devising ways to make charters whole without hurting students in traditional schools.

We can’t help but think the city might have forestalled this lawsuit if it had done more to help charters find facilities. It’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that the time and resources that will be expended by both sides in court would be better directed at finding a solution that ensures fair treatment for every student.