Study finds funding gap between D.C. specialty and neighborhood schools

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 10:25 PM

The two public high schools, 21/2 miles apart in Northwest Washington, serve vastly different student populations. And they do it with vastly different levels of financial support, according to an analysis of school spending by a District advocacy group.

School Without Walls accepts only the city's most accomplished students after a competitive application process that requires interviews with prospective parents as well. More than 700 students are vying for 120 spots in next year's ninth-grade class. Those who are admitted will attend classes in a freshly renovated vintage building on the George Washington University campus. District funds per student: $10,257.

Cardozo, near 13th Street and Florida Avenue, is a neighborhood high school that takes all comers in an attendance area that includes about a dozen group homes and homeless shelters. Parole officers and social workers are sometimes the only adults who appear at the school on students' behalf. The wiring in the cavernous 1916 building was so bad a couple of years ago that when all of the computers were turned on, power in half of the school would go out, said Principal Gwendolyn Grant.

District funds per student: $7,453.

"I think a lot of the kids do believe they're a little overlooked here," Grant said. "My opinion is the money should go to those who need it the most."

Funding for nearly all of the city's other neighborhood high schools (Anacostia, Ballou, Coolidge, Dunbar, Roosevelt, Spingarn, Wilson and Woodson) also lags behind that of the application schools (Banneker, Ellington, McKinley, Phelps and Walls), which offer specialized programs.

That is the finding of an analysis of 2010-11 school budgets by the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators (SHAPPE), a group that advocates for the interests of the city's public high schools and was often critical of Michelle A. Rhee during her tenure as D.C. schools chancellor, which ended in October.

"The stark contrast in per pupil cost is unacceptable," said SHAPPE executive director Cathy Reilly, who wrote a letter to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) last week asking him to address the issue in his administration's fiscal 2012 budget.

The per-student funding allocations at the neighborhood schools range from $6,039 at Wilson to $8,333 at Woodson. At specialty schools, support runs from $8,372 at McKinley, the city's science, technology, engineering and math high school, to $11,135 at Ellington, with its dual curriculum of traditional college preparatory courses and arts majors.

School funding is complex, and even those who contend that the system is unfair don't maintain that equity requires dollar-for-dollar equality. Small high schools such as Walls, with an enrollment of 450, are more expensive to operate. Large ones such as Wilson, with nearly 1,500 students, can achieve economies of scale that lower their per-pupil costs.

Richard Trogisch, the principal of Walls, said he is unconvinced by SHAPPE's conclusions, which he said are "not apples to apples" because of the particular costs of running a small school.

D.C. school officials didn't dispute the findings of the SHAPPE analysis, presented at a November hearing on the fiscal 2012 budget. Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson said the gap that separates the neighborhood and specialty schools, which have been receiving extra money for many years, is not likely to close soon given the city government's bleak financial outlook.

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