D.C. charters say raises give traditional schools an edge

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; B01

The proposed new D.C. teachers contract, which could boost some salaries to well above $100,000, is causing tremors in the city's non-unionized charter school sector, where officials view the pact as the latest inequity in D.C. policies governing the funding of its two school systems.

Charter advocates have praised D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for moving to dramatically increase compensation for public school teachers, but they say the contract's rich financial package, combined with inequalities in covering the cost of facilities and other services, violates the 1995 law that created the city's charter school system. An advocacy group, FOCUS (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools), is looking into possible legal action.

"I think the issue is so big economically for the charters that they will be forced to take some action," said Terence Golden, chairman of the board of the KIPP-D.C. charter schools and former chairman of the Federal City Council, an influential group of business leaders. (Donald E. Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co., is on the KIPP-D.C. board). Golden said he has met with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and other D.C. officials to discuss the matter.

The tentative agreement, which is to be submitted to members of the Washington Teachers' Union for ratification this week, would raise pay 21.6 percent by 2012, lifting the average annual salary from about $67,000 to $81,000. It also would provide for a privately financed performance pay program to be launched in 2013, potentially adding $20,000 to $30,000 a year to teacher pay based on criteria that include improvement in student test scores and service in a high-needs school.

The city's 57 publicly financed, independently operated charter schools, which educate 37 percent of the city's 75,000 public school students, have long been seen as competition to traditional public schools. But the contract has raised, for the first time in memory, the prospect of the tables turning.

"I do believe we will lose our best teachers," said Donald Hense, founder and chief executive of the Friendship Public Charter School system, which serves about 4,000 students on six campuses and operates Anacostia High School under a contract with the District.

John Goldman, chief operating officer for the William E. Doar Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, said that if ratified, the contract was a "lose-lose" for charters.

"We'll be forced to spend more money on teachers and less on other items, in order to get the same or a lesser product," he said.

The city's top-performing charters usually pay slightly more than D.C. public schools, offering a premium for what is often a longer work day. Maintaining that edge would be challenging under the new public school pay scale, charter school officials say. "It's always been a struggle for us," said Susan Schaeffler, founder and executive director of KIPP-D.C.

But others, including some charter school teachers, are not convinced that the new pay scale will trigger a stampede to the traditional public schools. They say money is only a part of an equation that includes working conditions, school culture and career opportunities.

"Naturally I've thought about it," said Marcella Windley, who teaches second and third grades at Friendship Public Charter School's Southeast Elementary Academy. "But I'm quite satisfied where I am."

Advocates say the contract gives new urgency to their contention that charters are disadvantaged by the District's funding system. Under the law, public schools and public charter schools are supported by a uniform per-pupil allocation, set at $8,945 for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

But charter officials say that because D.C. public schools are part of a huge centralized bureaucracy, they are able to offload some operating costs onto other city agencies.

Charters must cover expenses for maintenance and legal services out of their per-pupil funding, but the District's 123 public schools are effectively double-funded because they receive maintenance services from the Office of Public Education and Facilities Modernization and legal help from the D.C. Attorney General's Office. FOCUS estimates the value of these services at $25 million a year.

Public school officials say they shoulder other costs not borne equitably by charters, especially in serving special education students and others with a higher level of needs.

Although charter schools can cap their enrollments, Rhee said, "we have to serve those kids. We have to accept them."

The District also says the cost of the teachers contract is irrelevant. The performance pay system will be financed by private foundations, from which charter schools also raise money. The base pay increases are being funded strictly within the uniform per-student allocation that charters also receive.

Charters "can use that amount (or any other funds) to provide the teacher raises they deem appropriate," D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said in a May 11 letter to D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).

Bowser said it appeared that charter operators enjoy their independence from union contracts and big government bureaucracies when it suits them, then complain when that same freedom is disadvantageous.

"I'm always surprised by the desire to be separate, except when there's something good," Bowser said at a hearing last month.

Perhaps the most daunting issue, charter officials said, is the absence of a capital budget to finance school construction. Because charters must provide for their buildings, they also receive a per-pupil facilities allowance to cover rent, mortgage and related expenses. But some school operators say the $2,800 per-student stipend doesn't come close to meeting their facilities costs. Allison Kokkoros, principal at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School told the D.C. Council at a hearing in March that the facilities allowance covers about 66 percent of her costs.

FOCUS said its analysis of D.C. public schools, which are supported by a $200 million-a-year capital budget, shows the per-pupil facilities subsidy at $5,822 a student.

D.C. officials contend that the facilities payment is in some cases overly generous and that some schools have diverted part of it to cover non-facilities costs, such as teacher salaries. It is one reason that Fenty moved last year to cut the allowance from $3,109 a student to a maximum of $2,800. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who is challenging Fenty for mayor, has proposed partially restoring the cut, raising the fee to $3,000.

Charter officials say they don't want special treatment. "From my perspective, the issue is not really a question of competition," said Joshua Kern, head of Thurgood Marshall Academy. "The core issue is equity and parity."

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