February 24, 2012

THE SPECIAL commission charged by the D.C. Council with examining funding for the city’s traditional and charter public schools released its report late on a Friday afternoon before the start of a three-day weekend. Little wonder the group didn’t want to call attention to its work: It essentially punted on all the core issues of school funding. That means there is more urgency than ever for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to resolve the inequities that disadvantage the growing number of students in the city’s charter schools.

Mr. Gray campaigned on a pledge to fairly fund all D.C. public schools, traditional and charter, and it was hoped the Public Education Finance Reform Commission would help that effort by examining the equity and adequacy of the per-pupil formula and other city funding practices. Alas, the panel — handicapped by a lack of time and seemingly deadlocked by warring partisans of charter and traditional schools — recommended only further study in its 78-page report.

Ostensibly, students who attend public charter schools and the traditional system should receive the same investment of public funds through the Uniform Per Pupil Funding Formula. But the problem, as advocates for charters have convincingly argued, is that the public school system receives a lot of extras — such as additional appropriations when it overspends its budget and in-kind services from other city agencies. A recent report by Mary Levy, a longtime analyst of D.C. public education, found that the school system has received $72 million to $127 million annually above what the formula provides over the past four to five years.

To some degree, the charters are victims of their own success; they came into being with the boast that freed from the constraints of large school bureaucracies, they would be more nimble and could do more with less. They’ve largely delivered on that promise — enrolling a student population that is perhaps more challenging than that of the school system but producing improved test scores and graduation rates. The perverse result is that charters — unlike the still-struggling school system — aren’t seen as being in dire need and have fewer advocates making their case for a larger share of city resources.

Perhaps a case can be made that a dollar-for-dollar match between the two systems may not always be appropriate. But there are glaring inequities that Mr. Gray can fix without the need for further delay or more expensive studies. That includes a stop to the practice of requiring the charters to repay monies if they don’t meet enrollment projections, while giving the traditional school systems a pass. More vacated or underutilized public school buildings should be opened for use by charters. There is simply no excuse for letting these buildings sit unused while successful charters are operating in cramped and crowded conditions. An astounding 41 percent of public school students attend charters, and there is no sign of that abating. Indeed, Mr. Gray’s administration is exploring whether to give the school system its own chartering authority so that it can enjoy the same flexibility and independence. It’s time to resolve these fundamental funding issues.