Risky (School) Business

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) recently wrote about a study by budget analyst Mary Levy on how DCPS is proposing to use its FY17 at risk funds, which are supposed to be set aside specifically for students meeting the law’s definition of “at risk” (homeless; in foster care; high school students at least one year older than expected age for grade level; or qualifying for TANF or SNAP funds).

Titled “Are DCPS Low-Income Schools Shortchanged When it Comes to Supplemental Resources for “At-Risk” Students,” the DCFPI blog piece noted that DCPS doesn’t always use at risk money only for at risk students. Sometimes—in fact, according to the analysis, 47% of the time—DCPS uses at risk monies for items that it should be funding otherwise.

Not that misuse of at risk funds is new: The first year that at risk funds were made available to DC public schools, DCPS simply spread the wealth wherever it felt, leaving some schools with large numbers of at risk children with less at risk funds than schools with fewer at risk students. (C4DC has a link to a lovely DCPS budget tool that compares budget years within DCPS and gives a DCPS budget forecast for FY17.)

Although the distribution of at risk funds among DCPS schools is more equitable this school year and next, Levy’s analysis shows that DCPS may be using its at risk funds 47% of the time to cover core school functions, a violation of the law that created at risk funding.

The public funds being misdirected in this way are not small beer: For FY16, DCPS’s portion of at risk funding totaled about $45 million, out of a total at risk pot of $80 million. This roughly (though not exactly) tracks with the percentage of students in DCPS versus charters (56% of at risk money to DCPS, which educates 55% of all DC public school students; 44% of at risk money to charter schools, which educate 45% of all DC public school students).

Of course, the logical next question is:

What’s going on with the rest of FY16’s at risk funds, which is that $35 million for charter schools?

DC law demands accounting for all at risk funds, which the council asked for (and got!) from both DCPS and the charter board for FY16.

Well, not exactly:

The October 2015 reports were not made widely available publicly until the good folks at DCFPI asked the council for them and posted them here. (Scroll down to “Of Interest”; a DCPS spreadsheet along with a charter board report are available–there is also an addendum to the latter, showing the correct fiscal year accounting.)

Then, too, the charter board didn’t respond in the mandated way.

Explaining that it “does not oversee the expenditures of at risk funds,” the charter board instead issued a survey to DC’s charter schools, asking them if they wanted to account for their use of at risk funds. Almost half–49%–responded. The rest didn’t.

[Note to self: Need to try this next year with my income taxes.]

The charter board went on to note in its report that “because at risk funds are spent on a variety of items, such as personnel, supplies, and contracted services, reliable tracking of at risk fund expenditures would require schools to engage in burdensome fund accounting.”

Despite the burden of accounting to the public for the money the public grants, most of the charter schools that responded appeared, from their own descriptions, to be using the money as intended, with only a few outliers (i.e., foreign language immersion; raising test scores).

However, silence in this case isn’t golden–and one can only wonder if the lack of reporting from the other half of DC charter schools isn’t merely because it’s so “burdensome,” but because the funds are–as with DCPS–being used to supplant core funding, rather than provide a supplement specifically for at risk students.

Even with detailed reporting like that provided by DCPS, it is not clear where all at risk funds in that sector go, because DCPS central offices withhold a certain percentage. In FY17, for instance, the allocation for each student at risk in DC public schools is $2,120. Mary Levy says that in FY17, DCPS will allocate $1,908 for each at risk student. Where is the missing $212 per at risk DCPS student, and what is it being used for?

Add to that the fact that no one appears to have any accounting for how each charter school actually spends its at risk funds, which violates reporting mandates.

Perhaps a better title for the DCFPI blog piece would have been: “Can We Ensure That ALL At Risk Students Are Not Shortchanged When It Comes to Supplemental Resources?”

Until the law is enforced and those black boxes of education funding opened to sunlight, the answer appears to be no.

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