D.C. Charter School Alliance asks the Mayor for millions; let’s go another route

A February 10th letter from Shannon Hodge, the founding executive director of the D.C. Charter School Alliance, addressed to Mayor Muriel Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, lays out a detailed wish list of additional funding for both charters and DCPS as part of the FY 2022 budget. Here are the recommendations:

● Increase the UPSFF foundation level by 4% to partially close the gap between current funding levels and the recommended levels from the 2013 DC Education Adequacy Study.
● Increase the facilities allotment by 3.1% to ensure that charter schools continue to receive funds needed to secure and maintain school buildings.
● Increase the at-risk funding weight to .37, the level recommended in the 2013 adequacy study, to direct needed funds to our students most in need of targeted interventions and support.
● Provide $6.4M to expand the Department of Behavioral Health’s school-based mental health program, which will enable 80 additional schools to address student and family mental health needs that instability and loss during the last year have likely exacerbated.
● Increase the English learner weight to .61, the level recommended in the 2013 adequacy study, to support undocumented students who are often excluded from receiving other financial supports due to lack of documentation.

In addition, Ms. Hodge seeks a couple of “legislative adjustments” which will also add to the educational funding stream:

● Create a statutory requirement for review of the definition of “at-risk” under the DC Code to ensure the definition appropriately captures the students in need of additional funding support.
● Continue the automatic escalation of facilities funding for public charter schools with a 3.1% annual increase for each of the next five years to ensure continuity of funding for charter school facilities.

The justification for all of this added public funding is, of course, a continuing effort to close the academic achievement gap between the affluent and poor. The letter states that “While our students have made significant improvements over the years, our investments have not yet produced the education outcomes necessary for every part of our city to thrive. And with COVID-19 disproportionately affecting low-income communities, even more is needed to close opportunity gaps.”

I asked the Alliance for an estimate of the impact on the city’s budget if all of the above requests were granted. There was no response. Therefore, I did a little back-of-the-envelope analysis of my own. The Uniform Per Student Funding Formula’s current base to pay for teaching one pupil a year is $11,310. The four percent increase would bring this number to $11,762. Applying this new payment to 94,412 students leads to $42.7 million in new spending per year. On the charter school facility side, a student generates $3,408 in revenue a year. Bringing this number up by 3.1 percent would generate another $4.6 million in costs. So between the two changes we are talking about around $50 million more annually for public education while recognizing that Washington, D.C., according to Ms. Hodge, “enjoys one of the highest per-pupil allocations for education funding in the country.”

I know it has been an exceptionally challenging twelve months when it comes to instructing our children. The pandemic has brought massive new costs in personal protective equipment, laptops, and other equipment and supplies. But then again, Ms. Bowser last December awarded $10 million dollars to charters to cover these costs. This comes on top of a $16 million grant from the federal government tied to increasing literacy for disadvantaged students. Let’s also not forget contributions schools have received from the DC Education Equity Fund. It’s really hard to keep up with all of this spending.

It is also not as if the Mayor has not been providing educational resources to the charter and traditional school sectors. Since Ms. Bowser came into office in 2015, I cannot recall a time when the UPSFF was not increased as part of the annual budget cycle.

Therefore, I think its more than fair to ask what we have received for this level of financial commitments? I’ll save you the drumroll. The District of Columbia has one of the nation’s largest academic achievement gaps at about 60 points. In addition, despite the heroic efforts of teachers and education leaders, it has not budged for decades.

Therefore, I really think it’s time to try something different. Let’s convert all the traditional schools to charters. In addition, the DC Public Charter School Board must approve more charter operators in the city. Simultaneously, now that Scott Pearson is no longer the board’s executive director, his successor Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis needs to figure out how to provide the schools under her jurisdiction the freedom that they enjoyed when these alternative schools were first created in the nation’s capital.

This terrible pandemic has taught us that we cannot continue to conduct our business as we have in the past. Let’s apply this lesson to the city’s education budget.

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