Shock Doctrine School Budgeting

[Ed. Note: This is the first of two blog posts on DCPS budgeting. It outlines the many ways in which the fiscal stability of (and equity within) DCPS continue to be undermined. The second blog post outlines a better path forward–authored by two parents along with help from members of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization.]

In the wake of massive and inequitable budget cuts for DCPS schools (not all of which merited cuts per their enrollment) and thousands of new seats at charter schools (2600 approved thus far in 2019), DC education leaders have stuck to one refrain regarding the future of DCPS: yet more budget cuts.

Starting with the deputy mayor for education (DME) in the spring, who noted during a council hearing that we have “overinvested” in DCPS schools of right with large proportions of very poor students (despite evidence to the contrary), to the DCPS chancellor, saying that stabilizing schools with low enrollments is “not sustainable,” to the mayor herself, noting how we cannot afford small schools, the 2019 message emanating from DC education leaders seems to be that the cost of securing education rights in DCPS is just too darn high.

Indeed, future DCPS belt-tightening was highlighted during a recent Ward 7 education council meeting, where the DME apparently noted that “budget discussions moving forward will be affected by softening of city revenue growth combined with an increase in school-level costs. The larger number of unintentionally small schools complicates this further.”

Accepting a “softening” of city revenue, to what should we attribute that “increase in school-level costs”?

It would appear to be in part teachers–as evidenced by the blame foisted on increased personnel spending (and more experienced teachers!) for DCPS’s (otherwise unheralded) $23 million deficit. (See the DME here, at the 1:40 mark; and see the Post story here on the deficit.)

That rationale has a curious timing, given that DCPS teachers are currently in negotiations for renewing their contract. It is also curious given that the previous, and long-delayed, raise for DCPS teachers ensured a bolus of money to charter schools (you know, the ones without a unionized workforce), per what seems to be an equitable arrangement (more money to DCPS = more money to charter schools).

Yet, no one in DC education circles has apparently even allowed that the DCPS deficit may be a result of the city for many years simply not paying what DCPS teachers were contractually due. Nor has anyone in city education leadership apparently asked where that bolus of cash actually went in our charter schools, given that charters are under no obligation to spend it on their teachers.

(In DC, it seems, school budgets are a concern–but only where DCPS is concerned. All the other money for our publicly funded schools comes from magic ponies!)

DCPS’s “increase in school-level costs” would also appear to be a result of a “larger number of unintentionally small schools.” This is elegant language for saying “hey, we can have infinite growth of charter schools of any size, shape, or placement, with private profiteering on the public dime therein. But an “unintentionally small” DCPS school?? Holy cow–what a money waster! Oh, and creating all those charter seats (2600 thus far in 2019!) without a commensurate growth in the student population, while we already have a lot of unfilled seats, wastes no money because, uh, magic ponies!”

[Confidential to city education leaders: California doesn’t think money for their charter schools comes from magic ponies because that state is bringing about actual fiscal impact statements regarding the creation of new charter schools. Imagine!]

The supposed increasing school costs in DCPS have also been attributed by DCPS in part to its comprehensive staffing model.

Introduced in 2010, DCPS’s comprehensive staffing model attempted to address inequities head on, by ensuring that, say, elementary schools would have arts classes and libraries. (Shocking, I know.)

Yet, in a presentation to community coalition C4DC a few weeks ago, DCPS officials (including the chancellor) asked whether the current version of the comprehensive staffing model “results in student outcomes that we want” and also asked “how do we create a model that is financially sustainable, given the reality of rising costs.”

The answer, it seems, is doing away with the comprehensive staffing model, at least in part, to allocate money to schools based on student demographics and principal autonomy.

This is so very interesting, given that in all the messaging about budget limitations, no one mentioned the data shown in this graph, created by DC school budget expert Mary Levy:

DCPS central office

Copyright 2019 Mary Levy

Basically, as DCPS enrollment has declined, the number of staff employed by the DCPS central office has increased.

On one level, this is nothing new, and it certainly has well-known effects. Even so, in a complex system like DCPS, saving money and/or provisioning schools is not as simple as firing administrators in a central office.

But that inverse relationship shown on the graph above should give every taxpayer serious pause when every single city education leader is currently saying that there is no way to deal with DCPS’s current fiscal situation EXCEPT to make cuts at the school level.

Even though the comprehensive staffing model was created to ensure that bleak inequities in schools of right would be addressed comprehensively, now it seems we’re back at square one–because someone somewhere is scoring political points without actually looking at the costs of, among other things, creating thousands of new school seats when even more remain unfilled.

[Confidential to the DC city council: I say all this because if you DID look at where our education money goes, you’d find lots of charter lobbyists getting paid a lot of money; you’d find a lot of political contributions from charter interests; and you’d find private profiteering from charter interests. You do know that none of that money ends up in classrooms, right?]

Partly to address the historically grotesque misspending of at risk funds in our schools, the DME has commissioned research to address issues of rising costs, with a product due by March. (See here for the RFP).

But it remains to be seen what tenets of this DCPS shock doctrine school budgeting will be taken into account by the chosen researchers. After all, instead of treating the systemic underfunding of schools of right like the disease it is, city education leaders apparently are seeking more of the same for DCPS–but under the guise of increasing transparency and sustainability.

Winter is coming–for DCPS.

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