The latest public school crisis in the District comes to us courtesy of the mayor, the D.C. Council, the city’s chief financial officer and the control board. Though school started four months ago, the District’s financial leaders have yet to decide budgets for D.C Public Schools (DCPS) or the public charter schools. Faced with legally prescribed funding levels and services, and with more students than anticipated, they are threatening to fund some at the expense of others or to give all less than they are entitled to. We hope they reconsider.
Congress’ D.C. School Reform Act of 1995 requires that funding for traditional public school and public charter school students be equal, and provided by a formula based on a “uniform dollar amount” per student. The Uniform Dollar Per Student Funding Act of 1998, adopted by the D.C. Council in October 1998, says traditional and public charter schools will receive the same, specific amount of funding for each of their students ($5,588 per pupil in FY 2000) with an extra percentage for each special-needs student and for students at certain grade levels. The school system’s budget will be based on the verified enrollment of the previous October (so there will be a known amount on which to plan). Additional funds will be provided to DCPS apart from the formula for special-education tuition and transportation as “state level” functions.
This prescribed level of funding is barely adequate. Public charter schools, funded by the formula last year, struggled to meet their expenses and most had to raise substantial funding privately. DCPS, formula-funded for the first time this year, would receive substantially less in real, inflation-adjusted dollars than it received in the early 1990s. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s calculation of $615 million for FY 2000 amounts to $494 million in 1991 dollars. In 1991 DCPS actually spent $518 million, so in effect the FY 2000 budget fully funded would be $24 million less than in 1991, a decrease that outstrips enrollment decline.
City officials’ proposed funding, however, falls seriously short of the prescribed levels. When the mayor and council adopted the FY 2000 budget last spring, they funded the formula for DCPS students by siphoning $25 million out of the allocation for special-education tuition and transportation bills that must be paid under court order. Then, on the assumption that the anticipated increase in public charter school students would be matched by enrollment loss from traditional public schools, they set aside $30 million (about 5 percent) out of the remaining school system funds for distribution on the basis of fall 1999 enrollment, whenever it became known.
The audited counts, finally released Dec. 15, show public charter schools with three times as many new students as DCPS lost, a net increase of about 2,300 students for whom no funding had been appropriated. Meanwhile, special education tuition and transportation costs, which are paid only by the school system, are rising, not falling. About 500 more students are entitled to private placements, and hundreds more to bus transportation from their homes to both public and private schools.
The result is insufficient funding for all public school children traditional, charter and private placements in special education. The DCPS budget for the current year may be as low as $571 million, though the superintendent is entitled to $615 million based on this year’s audited enrollment count. The public charter schools are in similar straits; some may not even be able to cover their payrolls for lack of city payments that they should have had in October. Funds for special education transportation and tuition could run out as early as spring.
Parents have a right to expect that DCPS and charter school students will be funded uniformly at the same amount per pupil based on this fall’s enrollment; that DCPS and charter students will be fully funded at $5,588 per pupil plus weighted add-ons and that special-education tuition and transportation costs will be fully-funded in accordance with court mandates and without siphoning funds out of the formula funding for students enrolled in regular schools.
If funding is to be based on current enrollment, then increased enrollment must entail increased funding. High special-education costs are at this point unavoidable. The only sensible course under these circumstances is to build the capacity of the public schools to prevent unnecessary private school placements, recognizing that any savings lie at least two to three years in the future. The purpose, and the value, of having a per-pupil formula for public school funding was to assure equity among students wherever enrolled and to provide stable and predictable school funding to permit systemic planning. Instead, equity is threatened and planning impossible because rules and allocations shift mid-course.
The situation threatens not only serious disruption from mid-year cost-cutting for both traditional and charter public school students all over the District, but further litigation in existing lawsuits by parents of special education students. Other parents are prepared to insist on uniform and full funding for both traditional and charter public school children under the uniform formula and school reform acts. Litigation, which would be directed solely toward city funding, would not interfere with school operations.
Nonetheless, until resolved, it would produce continued uncertainty and consume time and energy. The better alternative is that city leaders reassure parents and teachers that they will resolve this mess right now. They should keep the promises made in the uniform formula by immediately preparing and enacting a supplemental budget request.
Delabian L. Rice-Thurston is executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools and mother of a DCPS student. is executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools and mother of a DCPS student.