Happy Winter Break—or Why You Are Probably Already Behind in Lobbying for Your Public School

This past Friday, December 18, DCPS principals had run out of time to appeal enrollment projections. This is important because next year’s DCPS school budgets will be based on those enrollment projections, which DCPS principals had 11 days to argue up (or down).

Right now, the timeline for the DCPS FY17 budget roughly follows this outline:

1. Lots of individual school lobbying with the mayor and council during January, while DCPS releases a budget app on January 15.

2. New DCPS principals have budget office hours during the week of January 18.

3. On February 8, DCPS releases a budget guide.

4. On February 12, initial DCPS school budgets are released.

5. Lots of wrangling ensues until March 7, when DCPS principals need to submit their budgets, having had a very short timeframe (less than 5 days typically) in which to see their budgets, work with their LSATs on who gets the ax (or doesn’t), and resubmit the budgets to DCPS.

6. On March 18, DCPS turns over its budget to the mayor.

7. On March 24, the mayor turns over the FY17 budget to the council.

8. Lots of council budget oversight hearings in April, with committee mark-ups.

9. Around mid-May, the council holds a vote, then a final vote, and then sends the public education budget to the mayor.

Of course, this schedule is not limited to DCPS–the council’s performance oversight hearings (beginning in February) and budget oversight hearings (in April) concern all city agencies, including the charter school board.

But as Ward 6 parents learned last week at their ward education council meeting, by February or so, the DCPS budget is, um, “baked” (in the parlance of a council staffer).

Thus, if you are not already lobbying with your BFF councilmember or Wilson Building staffer, you are late to this party and probably won’t get a lot of great treats from the political table.

So, what’s a public school parent to do?

DCPS appears to have some budget priorities for next school year, including investing in “struggling schools”; increasing instructional time; reducing the drop-out rate; and helping teachers succeed in the “lowest-performing” schools.

Since there is no metric to show what DCPS priorities from year to year achieve (remember middle school initiatives?), it is difficult to know why these (as opposed to any other) priorities are highlighted or what will be the outcome of this focus (and what that focus will consist of in terms of budgets).

For its part, DCPS appears determined to increase the length of its school day and/or year. On its information sheet, available here, the agency is explicit:

“Given the current structure of the 180 day school year and 6 1⁄2 hour school day and the unique needs of each of our students, there is simply not enough time to provide our students  . . . with everything they need.”

Presumably, no matter what people earlier voiced on this through the agency’s (now-closed) survey at engagedcps.org, DCPS seems committed to one action alone. (Apologies to the DCPS students I transported the other week, who were loudly opposed to any lengthening of their academic hours.)

Charter schools appear to have a little more peace in their budget process. The dearth of information on the FY17 budget on the charter board website underscores an apparent lack of engagement at this moment by individual schools or their parents–likely attributable to the fact that individual charter school budgets are determined in June.

Moreover, the highs and lows of budgeting seen with annual DCPS budget battles are not an issue generally for charter schools, as the citywide per pupil public education funding allocation applies to each charter school more or less uniformly. DCPS budgets follow staffing models, which makes them much more complex, with less control by each principal than a charter school would have, and less beholden to that per pupil funding–although increasing the per pupil funding allocation is desired by both sectors.

Like that for most DCPS schools, each charter school’s budget is largely determined by its enrollment. For charter schools, that enrollment count is projected by OSSE in the summer (based on each school’s own projections and that of the charter board for each school) and enrollments later certified in the fall and then audited in the spring. Quarterly payments to charter schools are then adjusted accordingly throughout the school year.

And like DCPS, the charter board advocates to increase that per pupil funding (PPF), which of course applies to all public schools citywide. Right now, no one knows what that PPF will be for FY17; the amount is determined by the mayor and approved by the city council.

The charter board also advocates for including in the PPF that charters receive whatever extra monies are given to DCPS by other city agencies throughout the school year.

Needless to say, this is a politically sensitive subject in DC (as well as the subject of an ongoing lawsuit).

Regardless of the merits (or not) of that lawsuit, the two school sectors cannot be mini-me’s in their current configurations. This is neither a good nor a bad thing. Rather, different obligations of the two sectors by necessity entail different focuses.

Right now, only one sector has fail-safe schools, and only one sector has entirely city-owned buildings and legal boundaries that exist precisely for the purpose of ensuring that every child in the city doesn’t merely have “access” to a public school through chance (i.e., the lottery), but a guaranteed slot by right in a neighborhood public school that offers what every other neighborhood school does.

But public education here is inherently political, with control of by right schools centered on the mayor and her appointed deputy mayor for education–and control of charters centered on mayoral appointees to the charter board and individual charter school boards.

In this political climate, the influence of money cannot be discounted. With an annual school budget greater than $1 billion, DC’s public schools are inherently interesting to special interests both in and outside DC. In the last 20 years alone, those interests have had incredible power in setting the course of DC education, including forcing DC to create charters.

It is not easy tracking how public education budget discussions are entangled by such interactions. But they are, because the results of their influence extend in many directions—whether elegant forums for hedge fund managers to discuss the “credit quality” of our children in charter schools or a teacher evaluation system in DCPS created by private money or the private CityBridge Foundation offering to message DCPS school closures and possible chartering authority for Kaya Henderson. Indeed, the title of the CityPaper’s recent excellent story on public education influence and money in DC says it all: “Shadow Chancellor.”

This pathway of money and influence in DC public education also includes the substantial investment by our city in standardized testing through Pearson, owner of the PARCC test, which makes clear to its investors that our children’s educations are, first and foremost, a profitable industry.

The bottom line is that most of us DC public school parents (and even some local education experts) are literally ignored in many public education discussions here. (Well, our money is not ignored, since our tax dollars make us by far and away the majority stakeholders–albeit majority stakeholders without a real seat at the table relative to those of city officials and those closest to them.)

So, as we all struggle with our end-of-the-year scrambles, here are some contacts for folks who may be receptive in the next few weeks to education budget ideas that you have, provided you have a spare moment to send off an electronic missive (and/or convince 50 of your BFFs at your school to do so, as most of us lack private foundations with millions of dollars to get attention more, um, quickly):

Anjali Kulkarni, DCPS deputy chief of school planning and implementation, anjali.kulkarni@dc.gov

Nathaniel Beers, DCPS COO, nathaniel.beers@dc.gov

Matthew Brown, the mayor’s director of the office of budget and finance, matthew.brown3@dc.gov

Rashad Young, city administrator, rashad.young@dc.gov

David Grosso, chair of the council’s education committee, dgrosso@dccouncil.us

Christina Henderson, council education committee director, chenderson@dccouncil.us

Also, DCPS appears to be doing an online survey with regard to its FY17 budget, although given its now-closed survey of parents regarding extended day and its apparent commitment to extend the day regardless (take a look at how many of the posted comments on this website relate specifically to extended day), one may take this latest survey with a grain–or canister–of salt.

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