‘One City,’ but two school funding standards

January 27, 2012

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s “One City” campaign raised the hopes of many District residents. Finally, many concluded, we will have an administration that makes healing our city’s divisions a priority. Mr. Gray (D) declared himself keen to realize his goal in education by adhering to two principles:

First, ensuring that city spending on public schools is equitable, so that students enrolled in D.C.’s public schools can expect the same investment of public resources whether they attend public charter schools or the traditional system.

And second, that public funding for education meet the needs of students across the city, in our most vulnerable neighborhoods as well as in our most comfortable.

When the mayor was chairman of the D.C. Council, it created the Public Education Finance Reform Commission to identify how to achieve these two aims. It is due to make its recommendations Tuesday.

District law is designed to ensure equal public funding. At the heart of the law is the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. The formula is to ensure that students receive the same public funding regardless of the type of D.C. public school they attend.

But this equality has not come to pass, as the city has increasingly resorted to funding traditional public schools outside the formula. The city also has violated principles of equity, which require that we give each of our schoolchildren an equal chance to succeed, regardless of which public school they attend.

A report prepared by one of us for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools and the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools found that the total amount of city spending that District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) receives above what the funding formula provides has ranged from $72 million to $127 million annually over the last four to five years. Several fiscal bad habits have contributed to such massive sums.

The city appropriates money on top of the formula funding for DCPS, but not for charters, which educate 41 percent of students enrolled in city public schools. For example, $25.2 million is pending before the council to cover current DCPS overspending. Charter schools lack the luxury of such backup. On top of that, other government agencies provide DCPS with free services, such as maintenance and legal services. And for the purpose of allocating public funds, DCPS is allowed to use projected enrollment figures, which often prove overly optimistic. When that happens, DCPS retains the funds. Charters must use actual enrollment counts. All of these practices contravene District law.

The unfairness extends to school facilities. Charters are not provided a school building upon opening but receive a per-student facilities allowance to buy, lease and renovate what is often office, retail or warehouse space. Many charter schools are crowded and lack gyms, cafeterias and playgrounds or athletic fields. DCPS capital spending has increased in recent years, but the charters’ per-student facilities allowance has been cut.

The circumstances in which our public schools work do not justify huge public-funding disparities. Charters and traditional public schools serve broadly similar student populations, and the formula provides extra funding for any special needs students. Both are tuition-free by law and must take all applicants. The principal difference is that DCPS must take enrollments after the official October count date, which determines funding. We have never been able to obtain data on DCPS net enrollment changes after that cutoff. If evidence showed a significant increase, we would recommend creating a reserve to cover the cost of late-enrolling students.

Both DCPS and charter schools have reported higher student scores on standardized tests during the past six years. Both serve large numbers of disadvantaged students who need concentrated support, both in instruction and social services. Both are subject to big cost increases in areas such as teacher salaries and utilities.

School reform can help us build “One City. ” But to do so, we need to respect our duty to uphold fairness and equality and invest in every District child enrolled in public schools.

Alice Rivlin is vice chairman of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools. Mary Levy is the author of the recent report “Public Education Finance Reform in the District of Columbia.”

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