This week is National Charter Schools Week, an event promoted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to celebrate the great work accomplished by charter schools across the country. Meanwhile, the D.C. Council is considering Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposals for funding D.C.’s charters, which educate 43 percent of the city’s public school students, as well as D.C. Public Schools.
Operated independently of the city’s traditional public school system, D.C.’s charter schools can determine their own academics and school culture while being held accountable for improved student performance by the city’s charter board.
The District’s schools of choice have proved their value to local taxpayers. Charters’ high-school graduation rate is 21 percentage points higher than the city-run school system, and they have proved particularly effective for disadvantaged students. D.C. students eligible for federal lunch subsidies, who are enrolled at higher rates in the city’s charters than the school system, score an average of 14 percentage points higher than their city-run school peers on standardized tests.
Despite superior academic performance, which ensures a higher proportion of D.C. charter students are accepted to college than students enrolled in D.C. Public Schools, the city has consistently underfunded these independent tuition-free schools. In fact, under successive administrations, including the current one, the city has underfunded charters in direct violation of its own law, which states that public charter schools and D.C. Public Schools should be funded equally on a per-student basis.
How much does the city shortchange its public school students enrolled in charters? According to a recent report by respected independent education analyst and longtime D.C. resident Mary Levy, the District spends between $1,500 and $2,000 less in school operating funds per charter student than those enrolled in D.C. Public Schools. Additionally, the city allocates charters $3,000 per student annually in facilities allowance, but spends thousands more in facilities for each public school student.
Campaigning against former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Mr. Gray championed the cause of equal funding for all D.C. public school students, but this budget, like the previous two, proposes to entrench the unequal funding Mr. Gray inherited. The mayor’s budget proposes a 2 percent increase in funding for D.C. Public Schools and charters via the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, which is supposed to ensure equal per-student funding. D.C. Public Schools, however, receive huge additional funds outside the funding formula.
The city’s unequal, anti-charter funding extends to other resources that are critical for schools, such as school buildings. Charters often have difficulty finding school space — unlike traditional public schools, the city does not provide them with a school building. Typically, they must lease or buy property and renovate it, competing for commercial real estate and securing significant loans to convert warehouse, office or retail space. Many opened their doors in church basements.
Despite the problems D.C.’s charters face finding a suitable home — often lacking playing fields, playgrounds, auditoriums, gymnasiums and cafeterias when they do — the city has for years allowed vacant school buildings to rot, or it sold them. Many former D.C. Public Schools buildings are now luxury condos; others became D.C. government office space, despite the more compelling needs of charter students. When D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced 15 public school closures, charters were offered none.
The District also deprives charter students of access to other public resources. School crossing guards and nurses are routinely made available to D.C. Public Schools but not to charters. Charter schools receive their funding when their students are enrolled, but D.C. Public Schools are funded only upfront in a lump sum for estimated enrollment — some of which usually fails to materialize. They are not then required to return the money. D.C. Public Schools also receives city funds when it overspends, while charters have to live strictly within their budgets.
Unfair distribution of city funds has led to absurd consequences. The city is investing millions in under-enrolled high schools, while underserved charter students want for adequate school facilities. While city schools enjoy surplus space — and the traditional public school system has surplus buildings — some 15,000 applications for student spaces at charters were received last year, which the city’s oversubscribed charter schools lacked the capacity to accommodate.
I urge members of the D.C. Council — from the chairman of the newly created Education Committee, council member David A. Catania, to the Council’s most recently elected at-large member, Anita Bonds — to take the opportunity to revise the District’s budget to end anti-charter funding. Working together, they can ensure that every D.C. child is fairly funded. Mr. Gray campaigned on creating “one city.” Let’s start funding D.C. schools like we mean it.
Ramona H. Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.