- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2011

You may not know it, but one of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s key election pledges is in danger of falling hopelessly behind schedule.

A critical component of Mr. Gray’s “One City” campaign was for the District’s publicly funded charter schools, which are independent of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), to receive the same amount of public funds per student as the traditional public school system. To this end, a law passed at Mr. Gray’s request when he was D.C. Council chairman established a new Public Education Finance Reform Commission. Its mission: to study equity in public funding for D.C.’s charters and public schools. But in a little-noticed, recent decision by the council, the deadline for the commission to make recommendations for next year’s budget was pushed back to Jan. 31, 2012 - very late in the budget-development process. This comes on top of nearly two years of delay in establishing the commission.

Public funding disparities between the city’s two different types of public schools are of no small consequence. About 41 percent of D.C. students enrolled in public schools are educated at charters. D.C.’s public charter schools are overwhelmingly located in vulnerable communities and serve a higher share of disadvantaged students than DCPS. Yet during the last fiscal year alone, DCPS schools got nearly $78 million in public operating funding and city in-kind services that the charters did not get - amounting to about $1,700 per student, according to an analysis by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. The DCPS per-student capital budget exceeded the charter school facilities allowance by a whopping $3,000 per student.

Meanwhile, the prior administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty made things even tougher by denying charters access to many school buildings no longer needed by DCPS - in spite of a D.C. law that requires the city to offer these to charters for purchase or lease before developers can bid for them. This exacerbates the funding-inequity problem by forcing charters into the expensive commercial market to acquire and renovate retail, office or warehouse space lacking room for playgrounds, playing fields, libraries, cafeterias and gymnasiums.

All of this is contrary to the letter and spirit of the D.C. School Reform Act of 1995, the founding legislation for charters, and to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula law, passed by the council shortly thereafter. These laws require that D.C.’s public charter schools be provided with the same per-student operating funding as DCPS and with facilities funding pegged to the DCPS capital budget. Both Mr. Fenty and his predecessor, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, largely ignored these requirements.

There are good reasons for Mr. Gray’s pledge to address these inequities. When the first charters opened, about half of the students enrolled in DCPS dropped out before graduating from high school. Last school year, D.C. charters’ high-school graduation rate was 84 percent - 12 percentage points higher than DCPS. About 83 percent of charters’ high-school graduates are accepted to college; DCPS refuses to release its college-acceptance numbers. On the District’s standardized test, the DC CAS, the percentages of charter high-school students who are at grade level in math and reading have increased from 32 percent to 54 percent and from 39 percent to 50 percent, respectively, in six years. Currently, only 43 percent of their DCPS peers are at grade level in reading and in math.

Charters outperform DCPS in most wards. The gap is especially wide east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8, home to D.C.’s most disadvantaged students. In those wards, 44 percent of charter students are proficient in reading, compared with 27 percent of their DCPS peers. In math, the figures are 53 percent and 27 percent. While there remains significant room for improvement, charters plainly are ahead of the curve - despite the failure to fund them equitably. Imagine what they could do if they got fair funding.

D.C.’s charter schools don’t want special treatment. They just want the government to stop treating their students differently from their neighbors - and often, siblings - who attend DCPS schools.

So does the District’s public. According to a recent poll of D.C. registered voters by TargetPoint Consulting, two-thirds agree that charters should be provided the same level of public funding and services as traditional public schools.

As council chairman, Mr. Gray was right to introduce legislation to create the Public Education Finance Reform Commission. Campaigning last year, he was right to make a strong stand for funding equity. Let’s hope that as mayor, he will continue to push for fair treatment for all public school students in the District of Columbia.

Robert Cane is executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.