A lawsuit that seeks to equalize funding between charter schools and traditional public schools could be an important test of the District’s authority to govern its own budget and affairs.
An association of D.C. charter schools alleges that the city has failed to provide uniform funding to its two types of public schools, effectively underfunding charter schools by hundreds of millions of dollars in violation of the federal School Reform Act of 1995. Last fall, then-D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan asked a federal court to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that decisions the D.C. Council has made about school funding are within its powers delegated by Congress through the Home Rule Act two decades earlier, which gave the District broad authority to self-govern.
The plaintiffs say that the federal law is binding and the District’s authority to amend acts of Congress is limited to those passed before home rule.
A ruling in favor of the charter schools “would really up the ante in the case to something far beyond this fight between [D.C. Public Schools] and the charter schools,” said Walter Smith, executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “It would be a blow to home rule and to democracy in the city.”
Newly elected Attorney General Karl Racine has inherited the case. A spokesman for his office declined to comment.
For most of the city’s history, Congress acted directly as the District’s local legislature. In 1973, Congress passed the Home Rule Act to “relieve Congress of the burden of legislating upon essentially local District matters.”
Congress waded into local lawmaking again two decades later with the School Reform Act, at a time when many viewed the public schools as being in a state of crisis. 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 based on enrollment.
In their lawsuit, charter advocates say the Home Rule Act did not give the District power to amend subsequently passed federal legislation.
“There is a tension for those of us who really are statehood advocates between what we would aspire to have for D.C. and what the Home Rule Act really does provide for,” said Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, which filed the lawsuit along with Eagle Academy and Washington Latin public charter schools.
Several pro-charter groups filed an amicus brief last week, stating that if D.C. officials can change the law, “they would have [also] been free to refuse to create public charter schools, to fund those schools, or to reform DC schools altogether.”
Nina Rees, president and chief executive at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in a statement that funding equity is an “unresolved issue” for charter schools nationwide.
The District has argued that its authority under the Home Rule Act does not have a time limit and that decisions the D.C. Council has made about education funding have required “quintessentially local evaluation of the needs and resources of the District’s public school system.”
Some advocates for traditional schools signed on to an amicus brief in support of a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the School Reform Act has already been amended multiple times by the council, including in ways that financially benefit charter schools and that charter advocates supported. They also cited financial audits showing that the city’s charter schools collectively had nearly $200 million in unrestricted cash at the end of the 2012-2013 school year, a sign that current funding levels are adequate.
D.C. charter and traditional schools are funded primarily through a per-pupil formula determined by grade and the types of services each child receives. Charter schools also receive a facilities allotment. Currently, 44 percent of public school students in the District are enrolled in charter schools.
But additional taxpayer dollars go to the traditional school system, often through facilities maintenance or legal services from other city agencies.
The funding inequality was documented in a city-commissioned study last year, which stated that structural differences in the two types of schools drive differing costs. Traditional schools are part of a “system of right” and must maintain schools across the city at every grade level that can accept students at any time, the report said. Traditional schools also incur extra expenses through union contracts, which charter schools are not bound by.
What is a stake is a lot of money. The complaint alleges that the city has underfunded charter schools by an estimated $770 million since 2008. The charter schools are seeking a change to the formula for future funding, but not back pay.
For many people, the funding debates are being overshadowed by questions about local autonomy.
Josh Burch, a D.C. charter school parent and advocate for statehood, said it sets a bad precedent to take “a schoolyard fight to the principal.”
“It looks like we don’t know how to manage our own affairs. If we want to be a state, we need to act like it — managing our own schools and budget,” he said. “Otherwise, why not defer to Congress on marijuana, abortion and guns, too?”
Edelin said this case only came to the courts after years of failed attempts to get the D.C. Council and politicians to address the financial disparities.
“School leaders need this law to be settled,” she said.