Good things and bad are happening to the District schools. On the plus side, voters turned out in unexpected numbers in November to trounce a private school tuition tax credit initiative, and public officials greeted the result with expressions of renewed commitment to public education. An impressive new superintendent is taking hold, and the election has brought three new faces to the school board. Student test scores have been rising, and the school system has made a strong commitment to end social promotions and intensify its focus on basic educational skills.
But there is reason for deep concern as well. Public confidence in the schools is still very much in doubt. The latest figures do not reflect any return of middle-class children to the public school system. The new promotional requirements are causing severe academic problems for many children who need special help and can't get it at current budget levels. And the teaching staff reductions this fall caused by declining enrollment brought another disruptive wave of teacher shifts.
We can hardly afford yet a third wave of teacher displacement and another exodus of children. So the current budget process, leading to funding for the schools for next fall, is not only an opportunity to test the positive tone creatred by recent events, but is also a process that many parents are looking at warily. The fortunate few have one eye focused on alternate arrangements. The vast majority have no choice.
The budget process began on a sour note. As against the board's request of $289.5 million, the mayor flirted with a mark of $249.5 million, which would have necessitated a new round of damaging layoffs, and then emerged with a figure of $263.8 million that is more constructive. The city council's education committee has now raised that substantially.
So much for the good news. There are essentially two problems with the $263.8 million figure. One, it makes almost no allowance for replacing funds lost due to federal budget cuts. Two, the steady-state situation that $263.8 million would maintain is at the low level imposed by the severe budget situation of two years ago.
Were the resources available, a budget request of $350 million could be justified. Parents United for Full Public School Funding recently released an updated comparison of D.C. schools with those of Montgomery County, which showed that the gap between the two systems has widened in the past year. We can be justly proud of the District's record of social welfare concern, but this record has been historically skewed, relatively speaking, toward picking up the pieces after the damage is done, as opposed to investing in the "preventive medicine" of public education.
Replacing lost federal aid, allowing for considerable belt-tightening, would cost something like $10 million (actual aid losses will be in the area of $12 million). This means that a break-even budget is really about $274 million. Further, funds to make the student progress plan and the intensive junior high school program more than a paper war on social promotions are absolutely essential. When these are added in, the rock-bottom total rises to $277 million. And this figure assumes a vigorous school-closing policy and savings from declining enrollment. If the mayor's promise not to reduce teaching staffs at all is to be kept, the figure is $280 million. All of this is exclusive of pay increases.
Then there are the funds needed to begin building back the system for the long pull, by reducing pupil/teacher ratios to the levels available before the drastic budget cuts, adding enough teachers' aides to assist with key tasks, making long-delayed building repairs, updating equipment, supplies and school libraries, complying with court-ordered special education reforms and adding security personnel. These initiatives would cost approximately $20 million.
Even this list contains no new funds for badly needed vocational training initiatives, summer school remedial work, expanded street academy programs for dropouts and students with academic or discipline problems or better programs for the gifted and talented.
Offsetting cuts must of course be made wherever possible. For example, expenditures on custodial services need examination, and there are still issues of central administration, regional administration, and the payment of rent for downtown office space, although it should be emphasized that the total available savings in all of these items are probably less than $2 million.
Fixing on a total dollar request in light of all the legitimate competing demands for resources is not easy. By the above analysis, $289 million, the council education committee's recommended figure exclusive of pay increases, would allow at least a down payment on a limited agenda of new initiatives that could appropriately have been far larger.
Parents United believe we have brought some credibility to the numbers game that has gone on in the past on budget issues, and we are following the current union negotiations closely, with an eye toward improving accountability and productivity. We also believe that credible advocacy means pursuing the school board and the school administration on issues of waste and quality. We will do our part on that but there is a tradeoff: adequate funding.