Do They—Or Don’t They?

As with getting a straight answer on hair dye (or paying off people for the occasional indiscretion), tracking whether our publicly funded schools use at risk funds appropriately appears to be difficult.

Given that DC’s two schools systems (DCPS and charters) outline the use of at risk funds differently, even simple measurements become a tough slog.

For instance, four hours into the recent DCPS budget hearing on April 19, before the council’s education committee, chair David Grosso appeared to struggle on this question, noting dozens of acceptable uses funded by the money.

Grosso also noted that it’s fine and well to attach these monies to individual at risk students, as currently mandated—but schools with large percentages of at risk students (which also, at least in DCPS, often have low enrollment) need more than just those dollars to adequately serve their at risk students.

For FY19, the bump-up in funding per at risk public school student is $2334, which works out to nearly $104 million total. This represents a decent increase from FY18, when the at risk student allotment was $2184.

Behind Grosso’s concern is the reality that current at risk funding is by no means adequate. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that following the guidelines of the 2013 Adequacy Study, our city would provide an additional $1600 per at risk student–about $174 million in at risk funds for FY19 alone.

As defined by DC code (§38–2905), at risk students for whom the funds are intended are homeless; eligible for TANF or SNAP funds; in foster care; and/or are behind grade level.

Yet, after years of inadequate school funding overall as well as insufficient at risk funds, schools often use their at risk money inappropriately, to fund core school functions (thus supplanting those other funds) rather than to supplement school budgets with specifically targeted help for at risk students, as the law intended.

(Or, as Grosso put it during the DCPS hearing, “the two S words.”)

Based on their respective numbers of at risk students, for FY19 DCPS has been allocated around $58 million and DC charter schools a little more than $45 million in at risk funds.

Unlike our charter schools, DCPS has clearly outlined how these funds are going to be used at each school. See here for FY19 DCPS at risk allocations and uses and see here for an explanation of DCPS budgeting. I confess that part of me wonders if this delineation is being paid for by the 10% DCPS lops off to cover “administrative costs.” (See p. 10 of the DCPS budget guide; this lopping off amounts to more than $5 million of DCPS at risk money for FY19.)

Anyhoo: In the first set of graphs (waaay) below, DCPS parent (and most excellent data geek) Betsy Wolf depicts these funds in individual DCPS schools for FY19. The second set of graphs, also created by Wolf, shows by DCPS school what portion of at risk funds are supporting core requirements (i.e., the staffing model; supplanting) versus additional items that at risk funds are supposed to support (supplementing). Although social workers and psychologists are allocated on the basis of the numbers of special education students at each school, it appears that large amounts of DCPS at risk funds are used for them. In addition, because those positions are in DCPS’s staffing model, Wolf counted them as mandated staffing. The graphs with “select” schools indicate those with special programming, per DCPS’s own labelling.

As Wolf’s graphs show, at risk funds in DCPS are on target for another year of misuse. (See here for a rundown of previous years’ escapades with at risk funds.) Indeed, the latest calculation, courtesy of DC schools analyst Mary Levy, shows that in only 59% of cases are DCPS’s at risk funds directed as the law mandates.

Besides underfunding core budget items, a major reason for such misuse of at risk monies in DCPS is that its budgeting is complicated.

“They re-create the funding formula every year, so it’s hard to know why things changed, since all parts of the formula can change,” Wolf notes. “Then they have multiple formulas: One for enrollment, one for at-risk, special education, special programming as well as stabilization and hold harmless for schools declining in enrollment. And then they round up staff positions in some cases, so schools with few at-risk kids will get a little bump (say, if their at-risk dollars covered 0.2 of a social worker). And then they force schools with a lot of at-risk funds to use that money on specials teachers (which are mandated), assistant principals, and special education teachers.”

Perhaps a bigger danger than the misuse of at risk money (intended or not) is inequity.

Wolf notes that while “at-risk DCPS schools may be getting social workers and psychologists to meet special education requirements, they’re not getting much (if anything) in the way of extra instructional resources, like teachers or aides to provide students with more academic support. Also, DCPS says that schools choose how to spend their at-risk funds, but that’s not true: Social workers are mandated (due to special education), so schools can’t say “we’re going to use those funds another way.””

So: what’s it like in DC’s charter schools, which now educate nearly half of DC’s public school students?

Apparently more of the same–only murkier.

The most recent outline of such expenditures is for the current school year–so not FY19, but FY18. Many charter schools have used these funds to hire social workers or administrative support staff (i.e., deans of students to affect culture and climate). This theoretically is following the law, but also makes it difficult to discern misuse. In addition, what seem to be core functions or staff are also sometimes being funded with at risk monies, which could be legitimate uses–or not.

The mystery is deepened by the fact that not all DC charter schools receiving at risk funds reported how their funds were used.

I have put immediately below what stood out to me as potentially odd uses for at risk money in the reported charter school spending plans for allocated FY18 at risk dollars.

(My list here is apparently the only journalistic reporting on the question of whether $40 million at risk dollars in charter schools were spent as the law intended. I guess freedom really isn’t free–well, at least for DC taxpayers.)

Selected Expenses For FY18 At Risk Money In DC Charter Schools

Cedar Tree: Consultants hired to help with at risk kids, but the work isn’t specified; the narrative indicates they will help all students.

Center City: Field trips (but not clear who is on those trips).

Chavez: Staff training and professional development; not clear if related to at risk kids only or for all students.

City Arts: An arts program; not clear if it’s only for at risk students or all students.

DCI: Educational aides and technology, apparently for all students, not just those at risk.

DC Scholars: Although the money is said to be for “homeless” students, the uses (staff, professional development, trips) are not clearly delineated or apparently only for “homeless” students.

Eagle Academy: Summer programming for all students–not just at risk.

Excel: Specifies specific help for at risk students, but has a line item expenditure of more than $400,000 for “teacher assistant” without any detail of what these people (plural?) are doing, with whom, or how many people are being hired for that purpose.

Friendship: There is no way to know what exactly the money (more than $5 million) is being used for nor for whom; about 60% of the school’s students are at risk.

Hope: Not clear how the funds are being differentiated for at risk kids–and some at risk funds are being used for special education.

Idea: Used for staff funding and field trips, but not clear whether the staff is used solely or mainly for at risk kids; field trips are for all students.

KIPP: Not clear that the money is going for specifically for at risk students; allocated more than $6 million in FY18 and used for a variety of things, including professional development.

Paul: At risk money used for computers, homework help, special education, and professional development for all staff.

Rocketship: At risk money used for a security guard, an assistant principal, and chromebooks (presumably for all students). Only half of the $1 million allocated was accounted for thusly; not clear where the other half went.

Roots: At risk funds used for extended school year (not clear which portion of the population is at risk).

Thurgood Marshall: At risk funds are entirely used to support programs already in place for all students; about 55% of students are at risk.

Two Rivers: At risk funds support assistants in all classes and smaller class sizes; about 20% of students are at risk.

WLA: At risk money partially pays for two teachers who are not limited to at risk students.

Yu Ying: Homework help is funded by at risk money, but it is unclear if this is only for at risk kids or how they are differentiated. Only about half the allocated $53,000 is accounted for; not clear what the other half is used for.

DCPS use of FY19 at risk money (graphs created by Betsy Wolf)

At-Risk ES

Credit: Betsy Wolf, 2018

At-Risk MS

Credit: Betsy Wolf, 2018

At-Risk HS
Credit: Betsy Wolf, 2018

At-Risk EC

Credit: Betsy Wolf, 2018

Misuse At-Risk Funds ES

Credit: Betsy Wolf, 2018

Misuse At-Risk MS

Credit: Betsy Wolf, 2018

Misuse At-Risk HS

Credit: Betsy Wolf, 2018

Misuse At-Risk EC

Credit: Betsy Wolf, 2018


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