Notwithstanding D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) claims that her budget for next year represents the “largest investment ever in public education in the District,” that budget, in fact, represents a cut in real terms in per-pupil investment. And, as hundreds have attested, that has resulted in staff cuts and pinched budgets in the face of stable enrollment at many of our schools.
It now falls to the D.C. Council to reverse the cut.
In 2013, the District conducted an “Adequacy Study” to determine how much was required to deliver a quality education for all our students. The city made significant upward adjustments to school funding in the budget for the 2014-2015 school year. The idea was not to implement all of the recommendations at once but to phase it in over time.
Since then, however, not only have no more of the study recommendations been implemented, but per-pupil spending also has declined in real terms, as Oyster-Adams parent and economist Emily Mechner carefully quantified.
Much of this erosion could and should have been avoided.
Last year, the council required the state superintendent for education to convene a working group to assess needs in preparation for the upcoming budget. The task force recommended a 3.5 percent increase in the foundation amount, an unsurprising recommendation given rising costs and the recent lag behind inflation.
The mayor originally chose a 1.5 percent increase. Then, in an “errata” letter to the council, she proposed an additional, one-time 0.5 percent increase. That proposal that still falls well short of the Working Group recommendation, remains inadequate for school funding needs, continues to lag in real terms and sets up an even more contentious budget debate next year when the one-time increase expires. If education were the priority claimed in press releases, closing the gap to avoid cuts in real terms ought to be achievable..
And what of our commitment to expeditiously complete our school modernizations?
Bowser’s proposed six-year capital plan for school modernizations reflects the lowest investment since 2007. The plans in the three budgets she has put forward are more than $320 million below the average for the previous nine such plans.
These reduced commitments come with much left to do: Many schools yet to be modernized and many that received “Phase 1” fix-ups and have long awaited completion. And, those school communities waiting in the pipeline justifiably worried that they will not enjoy the same level of investment as those that were lucky enough to go before them.
So what is the council to do?
The chief financial officer is wisely conservative in his revenue estimates. In the past two years, between the February estimate (on which the mayor’s budget is based) and the September one, he has increased the revenue estimate for the coming fiscal year by at least $25 million. When the revenue estimate increases, the dollars available for the budget for the coming year also increase.
One solution might be to make school funding increases contingent on increases in the revenue estimates later in the year. But schools need to know their budgets well before the school year to hire teachers and assign students to classes. The cavalry coming later is helpful, but its utility is tempered by disruption.
Rather, the council should fully fund the schools now and, if necessary, subject at least some of the tax cuts to a September trigger. The goal has been and should be fully to implement the package of revisions put forward by the Tax Commission. But the tax cuts already are subject to triggers. The estate tax changes offer the most obvious target for a delayed trigger. Whether codified now or in the fall, any change to the estate tax would apply to those who die in 2018. The decision of when we live and when we die lies in other hands and hopefully is not driven by tax planning. A delayed implementation of the estate tax changes can be no harm, no foul.
So there is a path to a real fix for next year’s budget, as opposed to the quarter measure in the mayor’s attempted “do over.” But the more important takeaway from this year’s budget cycle is that the system is badly broken. To avoid a Groundhog Day nightmare in which schools are underfunded and city officials are surprised to learn of it, the council should require D.C. Public Schools to commence the budget process for the 2018-2019 school year in the fall of 2017 with an assessment done in partnership with each school community of the specific needs at each school.
Sadly, it would be novel to build our school budgets based on listening as opposed to central planning alone. It would also be common sense.
Matthew Frumin is a Ward 3 education activist. Mary Levy has provided analysis of District education budgets for more than 25 years. Eboni Rose Thompson is a Ward 7 education activist.