March 2, 2012

The District has embarked on two major structural education reforms: creation of one of the largest public charter school sectors in the nation, and a mayoral takeover of D.C. Public Schools. Yet little attention has been paid to the financing needed to make these ambitious makeovers successful.

Are we directing the right level of resources, to the right places, to get desired educational outcomes? The reality is that no one knows, which is why the Public Education Finance Reform Commission was formed last year. The commission just released its recommendations, creating a blueprint for funding public education in the District in the future.

The District’s school funding formula — the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula — has not had any formal review in four years and no thorough examination for much longer than that. On top of that, public charter school supporters feel that the sector is not being treated fairly in the allocation of local resources.

The commission had a number of complex issues to address, with a very compressed timeline, yet it came to consensus on a number of recommendations to the deputy mayor for education:

Are we spending enough? The commission found that education spending per pupil is lower in the District than in Alexandria and Arlington. (We did not have time for a full regional analysis.) We recommended that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) fund a study on education funding in the District, as many states have done, to assess what is needed to implement educational standards and achieve desired outcomes.

Are we helping low-income students enough? The school funding formula does not take poverty into account, despite widespread acknowledgment that low-income children face extra academic needs. The commission recommended adding a supplement to the formula for students who are both low-income and behind academically.

Are we engaging parents and experts in school funding discussions? The commission recommended creating a “technical work group” similar to one that existed prior to 2008 to examine the funding formula annually and propose revisions. And we recommended creating an advisory panel of parents and other stakeholders to advise DCPS and public charter schools on how to make spending information accessible and understandable, and to engage parents in the budget process.

Are charter schools being treated fairly? The panel examined concerns about funding disparities raised by public charter school advocates, although it did not resolve all of them. In recent years, DCPS has received money beyond the funding formula for maintenance expenses, while charter schools have not. The commission acknowledged this but also recognized that DCPS has high maintenance demands, given the large amount of property for which it is responsible. We recommended revising the methods for funding maintenance to take into account actual facility requirements and cost, while calling for efforts to encourage efficient use of school space, including the sharing of excess DCPS space.

The commission examined the serious concern that DCPS receives supplemental midyear funding some years. We expressed concern over this (the supplement requested for fiscal 2012 is about 4 percent of the DCPS budget), but commissioners did not reach consensus that it made sense to give public charter schools a proportional increase every time DCPS has additional funding needs.

The commission noted that the enrollment data used to set school budgets are measured differently for DCPS and public charter schools. DCPS is funded based on enrollment projections made in the spring, while charter school budgets are based on audited enrollment counted in October. Unfortunately, the commission was not able to recommend a method that could be used by both DCPS and public charter schools, in part due to limited time for deliberation.

Do public charters need more money for facilities? Perhaps the most important finance issue for these schools — the adequacy of their buildings to provide all that students need — was not discussed extensively because it was not part of our mandate. Yet this is critical, as indicated by the commission’s recommendation to support more co-location. District leaders need to address this as charter schools become an ever-larger share of the city’s publicly funded schools.

Despite coming from different perspectives, the members of the commission found we had much in common. We embraced the need to strengthen the existing education financing system to support and sustain high-quality educational programs in both DCPS and public charter schools.

The writer, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, was the chairman of D.C. Public Education Finance Reform Commission.