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

By Bill Turque
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.

"Without a new infusion of funding, we cannot immediately eliminate the discrepancies without drastically reducing the budgets of the smaller, more specialized programs," Henderson said in an e-mail. But she said the city "is committed to review the manner in which we fund our secondary schools and consider solutions to address any inequities."

One major inequity - in facilities - is about to be addressed. Work on a complete modernization of Cardozo is scheduled to begin this year. But in other fundamental ways, Cardozo faces challenges that will remain unaddressed.

Although Walls' selective enrollment holds steady at 450, Cardozo's Grant said she faces "a revolving door" of students expelled or withdrawn from public charter schools as well as students living in group homes and homeless shelters. The school was budgeted this year for an enrollment of 614. But during a visit last week, Grant said she had 675 students under her decaying roof, with no additional funds to educate them or help transition them into their new setting.

The disparity is also reflected in resources. Walls is flush with computers and lab equipment. The parent association recently raised $20,000 for new textbooks. "We got everything we wanted!" exulted one teacher, part of a focus group in a consultant's report evaluating the school's successful application for autonomous status, which grants Walls more latitude over matters such as budgeting and teachers' professional development.

Cardozo's school community has little disposable income. Grant said she sometimes gives students money to get home on Metro. Kerry Sylvia, a veteran teacher and chairwoman of the social studies department, told a budget hearing late last year that she was still waiting for printer ink cartridges ordered months ago.

On paper, per-student funding is theoretically equal. The city's Uniform Per Student Funding Formula for this fiscal year is set at $10,376 in grades 9 through 12, a total of $122.5 million. But that money goes to the school system's central administration, which decides how to distribute it. About $6 million was set aside this year to fund the programs that make some schools desirable destinations for many D.C. families.

Banneker receives about $700,000 to underwrite its International Baccalaureate program. Walls is allocated $490,000 for an academic program that includes 17 Advanced Placement courses. McKinley gets $1.6 million and Ellington $2.1 million. The only neighborhood high school that draws from this funding pool is Ballou, which recieves $947,000 - about $850 extra per student - for science and technology programs.

Specialized programs by definition cost more, and they help attract and retain families who might otherwise decamp for private or public charter schools. Reilly and other critics don't question the legitimacy of the specialized schools, but they contend that the neighborhood high schools are falling further behind in financial support while students with serious remedial needs continue to their doors.

Before Rhee became chancellor in 2007, schools were funded under a weighted formula based to a large degree on the needs of the student population. Rhee said the method hurt many schools by giving too much power to principals who sometimes made questionable decisions. It also tended to disadvantage smaller schools that had difficulty generating enough money for programs.

Rhee, who wanted to see every school have an arts, music and physical education teacher, decided to switch to a "comprehensive staffing model" that allocated a core set of positions to all schools regardless of size. Such models tend to disadvantage larger schools such as high schools, said Mary Levy, a D.C. school budget expert working as a consultant to Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi.

Terry Lynch, a community activist and vice president of Walls' home school association, said schools with high-needs populations may well need more money, but not without more clarity on overall spending.

"It's a Pandora's box of smoke and mirrors," he said.

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