By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009
Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the D.C. Council are at odds over projected enrollment for the coming academic year, and the outcome of the dispute could have consequences both for District students and the nationally prominent schools leader.
It could mean the difference between an orderly school opening and one marred by crowded classrooms and teacher shortages. The number both sides settle on will also be a measure of Rhee's continued ability to get what she wants from the council as her chancellorship is about to enter its third year. Up to now, she has enjoyed a virtual blank check for her attempt to turn around the low-achieving school system.
The council voted May 12 to hold back $27 million of the system's $760 million budget for 2010, claiming that Rhee's enrollment forecast -- which calls for an increase of 373 students to a total of 45,054 after years of steady decline -- has been inflated to squeeze more money out of the District. The council's projection, based on the downward trend of the past three years, puts the student population at 41,541. The District's burgeoning public charter schools estimate that they will enroll 28,066 students, up from 25,363 this year.
The council is not challenging the charter estimate. It presumes that much of the charter growth is continuing to come at the expense of traditional public schools, which is why it doubts Rhee's projection.
"I am simply asking, where are 3,000 new students going to come from?" chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said at the May 12 hearing. "I am going to go out this afternoon and look to see if there are 3,000 parachutes coming out of the sky."
Rhee has waged an aggressive public and private campaign to roll back the council's decision. She has lobbied members individually and targeted local school budgets -- rather than central offices -- for cuts should the $27 million reduction stand. Spreadsheets posted on the D.C. schools Web site break down the potential impact school by school.
That has turned the heat up on council members, who are getting anxious calls and e-mails from constituents. But it has also strained Rhee's relations with local school communities, which worked for months with Rhee's staff on developing the 2010 budget and wonder why she hasn't looked more closely at the central office bureaucracy for cuts.
Rhee says her enrollment projections are based on solid demographic analysis, accounting for changes in the District's population and in the size and configuration of the school system.
Backed by a study she commissioned from a trio of think tanks -- the 21st Century School Fund, the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute -- Rhee cites several reasons for concluding that the District's historic enrollment decline (from 146,000 students in 1960, to 80,000 in 1980 to 67,000 in 2000) will bottom out.
The District has picked up nearly a thousand new students since the beginning of the school year, Rhee said. During the same period last year, it lost 800. According to the school system's computer registry, the District was actually serving 47,183 students as of May 12.
The sweeping structural changes of last year, in which 21 schools were expanded from elementary or middle into schools serving pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, will slow the rate of exit, she said. Parents of fifth- and sixth-graders, traditionally reluctant to send their children to a D.C. middle or junior high school, will be more likely to stay. The District is also adding new preschool and pre-K slots, hoping to draw from the rising number of families with small children in neighborhoods such as Union Station-Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan.
Finally, "We anticipate that more families will return to public schools in light of the faltering economy," she wrote to Gray last week.
The council voted to hold the money in reserve and make it available in October, if the annual enrollment census conducted that month verifies Rhee's projection. She said that being right won't mean much by then.
"Beginning to recruit and hire staff almost six weeks into the school year is of limited value to students who have been in class since August," Rhee wrote to Gray last Monday.
Negotiations between the two sides are expected to continue this week.
The dispute is playing out in an atmosphere of escalating tensions between the council and Rhee's boss, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), over virtually everything from board appointments to baseball tickets. There is particular resentment with what many members regard as a lack of transparency and responsiveness from the chancellor's office. Although the 2007 mayoral takeover of the schools vests power in Rhee and Fenty, the council feels it has been cut out of its oversight role.
The work that Rhee commissioned from the think tanks was completed weeks ago but not shared with the council this spring when it was deliberating the school budget. The study was made available to members and staff last Monday.
"Why is it that it takes us setting aside money to get them to come to the table and explain things?" asked council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). "How can we possibly exercise oversight when we don't have accurate information?"
One major reason for the scuffle is the change in how the District's public schools are budgeted. Until two years ago, funding was based on the prior year's enrollment, which had been authenticated by outside auditors. Fenty decided that it should be based on projections, the same way public charter schools are financed.
But constant waves of change have made accurate enrollment projections a moving target. Closures and consolidations have scrambled attendance patterns, as has the rapid growth of the charter sector. This year, nearly 46 percent of sixth-graders in the city attended public charter schools, up from 36 percent last year, according to the study.
"It's just a system that needs to be changed," said Mary Levy, a school finance expert for the Washington Lawyers' Committee. "We're going to have this fight every year if we go to projections."