The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. is misspending millions of dollars intended to help the city’s poorest students

The District’s public school system has misspent millions of dollars designated to help the city’s most vulnerable students, directing the money instead to cover day-to-day costs, according to government data, D.C. Council members and education activists.

The money is intended to provide extra academic attention and social services to boost the academic performance of children who lag behind their wealthier peers. But D.C. Public Schools uses a big chunk of the money to plug holes in the budget, covering routine costs such as paying the salaries of art teachers and aides.

“There’s no way we are going to help those students rise out of poverty if we don’t give them what they need,” said Ava Millstone, a parent at Amidon-Bowen Elementary, a school near the Southwest Waterfront with a large population of low-income students.

DCPS distributes about $50 million a year to benefit disadvantaged students in the District’s traditional public schools. That amounts to about $2,000 per eligible child. But nearly half of the money in the 2016-2017 academic year was used for other purposes, according to an independent budget analysis conducted by Mary Levy, a longtime schools budget analyst who in the past has worked as a paid consultant to the school system.

The D.C. Council’s education committee also looked at data from the school system and determined that in the proposed education budget for the 2017-2018 academic year, the District risked misspending 60 percent of the money meant for its neediest students. And an October report from the city auditor provided further evidence of misuse.

Levy and other education advocates said the spending violates a 2013 law and that the District appears poised to continue the practice unless Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) substantially increases education spending.

Bowser announced last month that her proposed 2019 general budget would provide $10,658 per student, a 3.9 percent increase over the previous year. A large portion of the increase will cover raises for teachers after their union agreed on a contract with the city for the first time in five years, according to Marlana Wallace, a policy analyst with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

The money for at-risk students is on top of the $10,658 per pupil funding.

Interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Amanda Alexander said in an interview that the school system invests in programs for its neediest students, noting that many low-performing schools have extended school days and academic years, which money for at-risk students helps fund. But she declined to comment about the city’s using at-risk funding to pay for core staffing positions.

“The primary focus area for us here in DCPS is to ensure that we do all that we can to close the opportunity gap,” Alexander said. “It’s about providing kids with the opportunity that they need to be successful.”

Students are defined as at-risk if 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 extra money for those students is supposed to mitigate the effects of poverty, which can make learning more challenging. Renee Murphy, a senior policy attorney at the Children’s Law Center, said many of her clients are D.C. children in the foster-care system who face significant traumas that can affect brain and language development. The at-risk-program funds are needed to provide those children with extra therapists, behavioral specialists and opportunities to catch up on work.

Attorneys at the Children’s Law Center said the school system is not transparent about its spending, making it difficult to figure out how money for at-risk students is spent. D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who sits on the council’s education committee, called for greater clarity.

“It’s a very complicated situation, and what makes it more difficult is that there is just not enough information from DCPS about where the at-risk funds are being spent,” White said. “At this point, we need DCPS to be really clear about what the at-risk funding is really for.”

The D.C. Council established at-risk funding in 2013 and said the money must be used to “supplement” school budgets, not “supplant” them — meaning the money can be used only on programs and staffing targeting at-risk students. The original law gave the schools power to determine how the money was used, but in 2015, the council gave the chancellor discretion — with input from principals and parents — on how to spend it.

The school system is required to submit a report by October detailing how it spent at-risk-student money the previous academic year. But education advocates complain that the report is vague and does not adequately explain appropriate uses of at-risk funding.

The school system’s report for the 2018 fiscal year lists the biggest at-risk expenditures, some of which appear to be appropriate uses, while others do not.

The school system, for example, spends $8.2 million for extended days — an investment that city leaders and activists say is an appropriate use of at-risk money.

But other expenses listed in the report appear more 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 art teachers and mental-health workers, while the at-risk funds are designated for hiring extra staff.

Charter schools also receive at-risk money and publish a report each year on their spending, but are allowed more discretion in using the funds. The annual report from the D.C. Public Charter School Board indicates that individual schools spend their money on programs and staffing in a manner similar to the traditional public schools’ spending.

The fact that DCPS uses at-risk money to pay for core staffing positions is hardly a secret. During a 2017 budget hearing, the schools chancellor at the time, Antwan Wilson, said he needed to dip into at-risk funds to ensure that every campus had an art teacher.

“Our ability to ensure that we have art programming equally distributed throughout our district requires that we leverage these funds to provide opportunities for all students,” Wilson said.

Last year, the Office of the D.C. Auditor published a report examining the budgets and staffing at eight elementary campuses; it found that more than half of those schools used at-risk dollars to fund core staffing positions. The report determined, for example, that Barnard Elementary in Northwest Washington met basic city staffing requirements only because it used at-risk funds to pay for 2 ½ arts and language teachers. Moten Elementary in Southeast used at-risk funds to pay for 1 ½ core staff positions.

Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee, pressed Wilson at the 2017 public hearing on how the money was used, citing Levy’s budget analysis showing that the school system misspent nearly half of the funds.

Grosso said he had been working with Wilson to ensure the money was spent as intended, but said the chancellor’s abrupt resignation in February disrupted that work.

Grosso said schools with small and falling enrollment — which tend to be in low-income neighborhoods — have higher overhead costs and their budgets do not stretch as far. Those are the schools where at-risk funds are mostly likely to cover basic staffing.

“I agree that there is a serious problem here,” Grosso said. “Short of taking them to court, I’m trying to figure out how to hold them accountable.”

Millstone, the parent at Amidon-Bowen Elementary, said the at-risk funds at her children’s school are misused to the detriment of all students. Poor behavior frequently disrupts classes, according to Millstone, whose children are not considered at-risk. And Amidon-Bowen needs extra therapists and behavioral specialists, she said — positions the special funds could cover.

“When school budgets are too tight and schools are struggling to maintain basic classroom staff,” said Wallace, the Fiscal Policy Institute analyst, “there’s a far greater risk that they will redirect at-risk funds to those pressing needs rather than creating targeted services to the students who need them.”