D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan has asked a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges the city has failed to provide uniform funding to public charter schools and traditional schools.
The lawsuit, which the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools and Eagle Academy and Washington Latin public charter schools filed this past summer, argues that charters receive less public funding than traditional schools, in violation of the D.C. School Reform Act.
Passed by Congress in 1995, the law paved the way for charter schools to open in the District and required the city to set up a “uniform formula” to fund charter and traditional schools equally on the basis of enrollment.
Nathan’s motion says that policy decisions the D.C. Council has made about school funding are within its powers delegated by Congress through the Home Rule Act in 1973. The law allowed the District to have its own popularly elected legislature and delegated it broad authority.
“In short, these are distinctively local decisions, requiring quintessentially local evaluation of the needs and resources of the District’s public school system,” says the motion, filed in U.S. District Court. “There is nothing in the School Reform Act or any other law suggesting that Congress intended to relieve the Council of its Home Rule Act authority to make them.”
A judge ultimately will decide how these two federal laws should play out in local governance decisions about school funding. It’s a unique — and closely watched — legal question for the nation’s capital, given its status as a federal district that is subject to congressional oversight.
D.C. charter and traditional schools are funded primarily through a per-pupil formula that varies depending on grade level and the types of services a student receives.
Charter school advocates have said that relatively high funding levels in D.C. have helped the movement flourish. Currently, 44 percent of public school students in the District are enrolled in charter schools.
But charter supporters argue that additional taxpayer dollars go to the traditional school system, which a government-commissioned study on school funding confirmed last winter.
Much of the extra funding for traditional schools comes in the form of services from other city agencies, such as facilities maintenance by the Department of General Services or legal representation by the Office of the Attorney General. D.C. Public Schools also receives funding based on projected enrollment, which can be high, whereas charter schools receive funding based on actual enrollment figures.
The charter schools estimate in their complaint that the city has spent about $2,150 less per charter student each year since 2008 than it has for students in the D.C. public school system, a total difference of $770 million. They are not seeking a financial settlement, instead asking for the court to rule that the funding arrangement is unfair and to issue an injunction ordering the city to comply with the School Reform Act’s uniform funding requirement going forward.
City officials have justified this difference by saying that traditional schools must be staffed and prepared to accept students at any point throughout the school year, which charter schools are not obligated to do.