D.C. Council members are moving to ensure the city’s most vulnerable students get the help they have been promised following disclosures that money for at-risk students was used for routine school system expenses.
Saying education leaders inappropriately spent that money, council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) introduced legislation last week that would compel the traditional public school system to explain how the funding is used on each campus.
The city designates an additional $2,000 annually to each public school student considered “at-risk,” which means they are homeless, recipients of welfare or food stamps, or are more than a year behind in high school. About 44 percent of the nearly 100,000 District students in traditional public and charter schools are considered at-risk.
The D.C. Council established the pool of money in 2013 and said it must be used to supplement school budgets, not supplant them — meaning the money can be used only on programs and staff targeting at-risk students, not to cover the cost of basic staffing positions or school equipment.
Last year, The Washington Post reported that the District’s public school system used the money to cover day-to-day costs. Parents and activists have long called on council members to hold the education system accountable when schools misspend the money.
“If at-risk dollars are being used to pay for things that the school should have anyway, then that’s a problem that this [bill] will address,” Allen said.
When the council established at-risk funding, it gave the schools power to determine how the money was used. But in 2015, the council gave the schools chancellor discretion — with input from principals and parents — on how to spend it.
Allen’s bill, which five other council members co-introduced, would return that power to the principals. It would also require the school system to submit a report detailing how each school spends the money. Schools could lose their funding if they do not comply.
The school system is currently required to submit a report outlining at-risk spending, but school advocates complain that the report is vague.
“We need to make it so that more accountability, transparency and power is placed at that local level and closer to the classroom,” Allen said.
The school system’s report for the 2018 fiscal year lists the biggest at-risk expenditures. Some appear to be appropriate, while others do not.
The school system spends $8.2 million for extended days — an investment that city leaders and activists say represents an appropriate use of at-risk money.
But other expenses in the report appear questionable. For example, the District spends $7.7 million of the money for at-risk students on art and language teachers. The general budget is supposed to pay for schools to have a certain number of art and language teachers and mental-health workers, while the at-risk funds are designated to hire extra staff members devoted to students who need additional help.
Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said in a statement his office is aware of the measure and pledged to work with the council.
“We are very focused on providing all of our students high quality education programs and ensuring transparency and equity in all of our processes,” Kihn said.
Charter schools also receive at-risk money and publish an annual report on how they spend the money, but they have more discretion in using the resources. The annual report from the D.C. Public Charter School Board indicates that schools spend their money on programs and staffing in a manner similar to the traditional public schools’ spending.
“One of the struggles we have had is really understanding how the schools are spending it,” said Sharra Greer, policy director at the Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit group that has called for greater transparency in at-risk spending. “Is it really achieving the purpose of providing supplemental support for students who really need the help?”
In addition to the measure addressing funding for at-risk students, council members introduced a handful of other education-related bills.
A measure supported by a majority of the council would increase language immersion schools, which educate students in two languages. The demand for bilingual education is high, with schools that have immersion programs running some of the longest waiting lists.
Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), who wrote the bill, said it would call for D.C. Public Schools to create an additional language school or program in each of the city’s eight wards by the 2020-2021 academic year. The measure also calls on the mayor to convene a task force and develop a plan to triple the number of dual-language immersion seats by 2025.
“We live in a global city, we live in a global country, we live in a global world, and we need to do everything we can to make sure students are ready,” Todd said. “We need to figure out how to create more seats, because that’s what parents want.”