The School Expense That Must Not Be Named (Or, How DCPS Schools Might Close Faster)

Several efforts are well underway in DC to change how money is apportioned to our public schools. The results of either may rapidly change our school landscape.

DC’s Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF) working group, convened by the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE), has just had two meetings out of a total of six by year’s end. Consisting of personnel from DCPS, charter schools, and city agencies as well as private researchers, the group is charged with advising on the levels of funding appropriate not only for the foundational level of the UPSFF, but for its weighted categories as well (i.e., at risk students, English language learners, etc.), using as its basis a newly completed study of the UPSFF. The group will then issue a report in early 2021, with recommendations not merely for those numbers, but also for the definitions of those categories. Changes in any of those areas can amount to tens of millions of dollars more (or less) for schools.

Then, this coming Monday September 14, DCPS will convene the first of two public meetings on its changing budget model, from a comprehensive staffing plan to something possibly resembling (or actually being) student-based budgeting. (You can RSVP for the first virtual meeting here.)

While these two, separate, budget efforts are being shepherded by ostensibly different agencies and groups (OSSE & DCPS), for ostensibly different purposes (UPSFF versus DCPS’s budgeting model), the people guiding both efforts are the same: personnel in the office of the deputy mayor for education, which has oversight of both OSSE as well as DCPS.

And, despite these two budgetary examinations being separate exercises, their goals are similar: to ensure not merely that funding is adequate and equitable, but that outcomes are tied to that funding, which has been assailed in DCPS for being unsustainable and “expensive” because of small schools and the (expensive) staffing required if the comprehensive staffing model is adhered to (which theoretically ensures that every school has similar positions).

From a distance, these efforts and their demand that budgets be tied to outcomes appear eminently reasonable. After all, public funding demands accountability, and what better accountability for spending in schools than student achievement?

But closer to reality as lived by tens of thousands of DC residents, these efforts appear to be in service to something else altogether: a blithe assurance of equity and sustainability while ignoring decisions about our public schools and the actual costs of those decisions, which preclude either equity or sustainability and, absent actual equity, may quickly result in DCPS closures.

Ask Not What Your School System Can Do

To get public feedback on its new budgeting plans, DCPS provided an online budget survey that closed last week. It also provided a slide deck that laid out different funding options, including what we currently have (the comprehensive staffing model), what we used to have before that (student-based budgeting), and a possible hybrid option going forward. Both an explanatory video and the slide deck mentioned how individuals and “peer” districts informed the planning—without identifying either group or explaining how they were chosen. (Also not mentioned were the terrible inequities in staffing across DCPS schools that the comprehensive staffing model was created to solve.)

Nonetheless (or, possibly, as a result), the DCPS survey had a number of fascinating questions, including which model we preferred; experiences we thought should be consistent across DCPS schools regardless of their size; and where we would like schools to “specialize,” in order to offer a “deeper, more tailored experience to meet the needs of a smaller population.”

(Uh, would that mean actually educating any and all kids—you know, like DCPS is statutorily supposed to do?)

Perhaps the most incredible question was this one:

“Consider what resources are needed for 20 students with unique learning needs–what would be needed (e.g. staff, curriculum, other) to continue to close the opportunity gap if these students were:

20 students with disabilities?

20 English Learners?

20 students with disabilities who are English Learners?

20 students who have experienced homelessness?”

(Who knew that federal guidelines for educating such vulnerable children, and the thinking of education experts that has informed those guidelines for decades, were not only optional, but something that I and other parents without one millisecond of experience as a teacher or administrator would have a profound take on!)

Given all that, it should not be surprising that precisely nowhere in the survey or slide decks was there any acknowledgement of DCPS’s unique role in the city, as the sector of schools responsible for educating any and every DC child.

That would require acknowledging that what we need isn’t more “specialized” anything, but a SYSTEM of well-supported schools in every neighborhood that confer equitable education rights to the students who live there—any and every one.

It would also require acknowledging that we do not have such a system.

Right now, only one area of DC has a system of well-supported and equitable DCPS schools of right–Ward 3, the wealthiest, whitest ward in the city with the lowest public school participation rates and the third fewest children. The DCPS schools in Ward 3 have libraries and librarians, nurses, PE, athletics, foreign languages, art, music, renovated buildings, and on average more experienced teachers. They are also well-subscribed by the students in bounds for them, who can for the most part walk to them because the schools are in their neighborhoods.

Outside Ward 3, this is what is happening with many DCPS schools of right:

–Some neighborhoods have no schools of right at all, due to prior closures, with children having to commute outside their neighborhoods (sometimes across high-speed, multilane commuter roads) for a seat at their school of right.

–Some areas of the city do not have enough schools of right to seat all the children there, also due to prior closures.

–The areas of the city afflicted by those two items above also have many schools in bad condition, with no modernization on the horizon and/or no swing space to accommodate students in a renovation.

–Many of the schools in those areas also have small enrollments in underutilized facilities because of endless growth in charter seats and schools nearby (often in closed DCPS school buildings).

–And many of the DCPS schools in those areas have relatively inexperienced teachers and higher staff turnover than schools elsewhere in the city, which are correlated with poor outcomes.

While each of these conditions is a travesty on its own, the whole tapestry of these travesties serves to deprive children across a large swath of DC of any semblance of education equity and rights, in a well-established pattern from east to west, from poorer to wealthier neighborhoods.

In the last two decades, that pattern has been accelerated with education reform, whose insistence on “accountability” has meant pushing test scores correlated with household income, such that schools of right with large percentages of poor students (the majority of DCPS schools outside Ward 3) are often less supported, underenrolled, and, eventually, closed.

Happily, neither DCPS’s survey nor the slide deck is mussed with any of these sordid details of the extravagant human costs of DC school governance!

Rather, both the slide deck and survey merely note that small schools are more “expensive”—and that this expense is, well, a problem because it entails more money.

What remains to be addressed, however, is the answer to this question:

Why Are Some DCPS Schools So Small Anyway?

To answer that would mean looking at the entirety of our school creation and choice system.

Take a look at this graph from p. 13 of an analysis of the foundational level of the UPSFF, from that just-completed study. It shows the proportion of charter students in DC, from FY02 through FY19, tracking from 14% of the total to 47% most recently.

Yet, in that same time, DC’s student population has not increased commensurately with the growth of charters—i.e., we have not grown our total student population by 33%, much less 47%.

So while DC has happily created new seats and new charters (some of which are quite tiny, which is apparently v cool), no one has purposefully created small DCPS schools.

Rather, those small (and “expensive”) DCPS schools were brought into being by the creation of literally 47% of existing school seats in DC through the actions of a small, select group of unelected and unaccountable people (the charter board) who bear utterly no responsibility for the fiscal ruin they have visited, and continue to visit, on our municipally run system of schools, their students, and the rights that those schools confer.

This right here is the unnamed school expense that absolutely NO ONE in DC leadership will ever mention—much less use to account for those “expensive” small DCPS schools!

The reason is that to do so upends the entirety of our school decision making for the last several decades, which has prioritized choice as a democratic and ultimately just method for equity. Choice requires novelty, whether in seats, programming, schools, or curricula. It also requires sales of the idea of choice itself and the things being chosen–not to mention mechanisms to promote and support choice (i.e., EdFest, the lottery, STAR rankings, etc.).

And at every stage, school choice requires disregarding the man behind the curtain: the huge (and in DC completely unaccounted) costs of school proliferation and closures.

Given DC’s $2 billion annual school budgets, school privatizers have seized on all of this quite profitably in DC, with almost $600 million in DC charter net assets in 2018-19, much of it (formerly) public money transferred to private coffers.

But school privatizers are hardly alone in embracing school choice.

City officials also love school choice, not merely for the money its proponents funnel into their political coffers, but also because it gets them off the hook in actually fixing inequitable conditions that they are otherwise on the hook for. After all, if you don’t like the (unrenovated, unsupported, inequitably resourced) school of right in your neighborhood, why—go to another school! So it is that schools of right with a less-desired facility, faculty, or student body can quickly become (in our president’s predictable parlance) losers: of enrollment, funding, programming, and/or political capital. Rights, schmights!

The irony here is that DCPS is correct in one thing: small DCPS schools are indeed expensive!

But it’s not their staffing or their resourcing that makes them so.

Rather, what’s really expensive is the erosion of education rights that our city’s devotion to choice, not rights, represents. That expense is borne almost entirely by those small DCPS schools themselves and the areas of the city that house our poorest kids (not coincidentally, the areas with the most children and the most small schools).

And absolutely none had any choice in the matter.

Here’s Where The UPSFF Comes In

Commissioned in fall 2019 by the deputy mayor for education, the recently completed study of the UPSFF was to update our understanding of proper funding for our schools, given that a 2013 study determined that the UPSFF was inadequate (and has since never been funded to the level that 2013 study determined was needed).

Perhaps unsurprisingly (given that the deputy mayor has oversight of both OSSE and DCPS), the $300,000 contract for the study went to a company whose “core beliefs” (as outlined on its website) did not include one syllable about education rights.

In addition to examining proper funding for weighted categories, the study also focused on cost drivers in our schools, determining that the main ones are “increasing personnel costs, lower utilization of facilities, and the cost of financing and maintaining facilities.”

It then recommended DC consider:

“Understanding the impact of collective bargaining agreements (“CBAs”) on UPSFF increases;

“Understanding the relative impact for LEAs of providing some services in-house vs. outsourcing, and how and why LEAs choose their mix of in-house service provision and outsourcing;

“Supporting higher performing school programs, or other initiatives to address small or under-utilized schools and facilities; [and]

“Supporting efforts to minimize the cost of capital, primarily for PCS.”

Let us unpack this for a moment:

Notwithstanding that it ignored the costs of charter management organizations and charters’ higher administrative spending, and the fact that no other LEA in DC has a collective bargaining agreement except DCPS (which charters have benefitted monetarily from due to an unusual interpretation of equity), this analysis included four—yes, 4—DC charter schools that “opted-in.”

(Oh, did I mention that we don’t know what those charter schools are?)

Now, even if the charters that participated in this analysis are the four biggest ones (15,233 total enrollment), they together constitute only a fraction (30%) of DCPS’s enrollment (51,441).

(Per SY19-20 audited enrollments: Carlos Rosario: 2124; DC Prep: 2048; Friendship: 4233; KIPP: 6828. Details!)

Yet, on a page noting the higher per student spending by charters on non-personnel items, the study notes that “DCPS enrollment is nearly 20x higher than the median enrollment of charters in this study. Spreading organization-wide costs that are largely not driven by enrollment, over a larger student base results in lower per pupil costs in some areas.”

(So: small is OK for charters, but not for DCPS, even though DCPS itself is, per this study, more efficient because it’s—gasp!—a system.)

Then, the study featured charts showing schools with lower enrollment and less facility use ending up with greater costs—but only analyzes this for DCPS.

(Again: small is good—but only for charters, which are more, uh, something else.)

Incredibly, in the appendix, among the assumptions was this: “For simplicity, the model assumes no new charter LEAs open after FY21; only select charters are projected to grow, and the annual growth rate applied to these charters is set equal to each charter’s approved projected charter enrollment ceiling through FY25.”

It is hard to imagine anyone seriously making such assumptions in DC, given that the charter board has over the last two decades repeatedly asserted its right to approve as many expansions and new schools as it is entitled to by law (either 10 or 20 new LEAs each year, depending on how one interprets DC code).

In other words, that assumption is not only not based in DC’s reality, but also apparently corrupt, as it presumes that charter growth and expansion exist on a plain far removed from the expensive, small schools of DCPS, which were actually created and perpetuated in large part by charter growth and expansion.

Interestingly, that assumption is also behind the DCPS budget survey, inasmuch as DCPS is presumed to have an affordability problem that is completely disconnected from everything that caused it, but that DCPS alone must deal with.

As far as I can see, the entirety of the UPSFF study appears predicated on an equally reductive notion, which is simply assessing things as presented in a limited way—and then putting forth somewhat canned options and relative price tags (without, of course, actually accounting for true costs to DCPS).

Take the section on at risk concentration.

The study determined that there may be fewer benefits from a weight in the UPSFF for schools with high at risk concentrations—without acknowledging that such high concentrations happen most often in DCPS schools of right, which are also often under-resourced per the staffing model, and with lower test scores and thus school ratings, all of which make them more likely candidates for closure—which we know doesn’t help students or save money.

(But boy, it sure does free up DCPS facilities for charters–and the neighborhood children who formerly attended those schools!)

The same section of the study considered funding by scale according to current categories of food assistance and then noted that it was “unclear how this would differ from current at risk allocation methodology, though one option may be to fund higher concentration schools as if ALL students were at risk.”

To say that this has not been demanded already is an understatement:

Digital Equity in DC Education has spent the last 18 months trying (and failing) to get digital devices and internet access for all DCPS students, precisely because the assumption that one can approach full coverage in a piecemeal manner is, in a word, wrong. Worse, it ensures that schools without a clear majority of at risk students are often forced to address the needs of their at risk students on their own, without leveraging the power inherent in an LEA of DCPS’s size and scope.

Fascinatingly, later in the same section of the study, the authors noted that targeting aid to schools with higher at risk concentrations would be school-based, rather than student based, and thus would add “complexity.”

Presumably, such “complexity” is why the study gave no consideration to ways the concentration of at risk students in high-poverty DCPS schools could be addressed outside the formula while also saving money—for instance, by deploying underutilized facilities differently or taking advantage of scale by expanding DCPS’s connected school model (which interestingly features schools with plenty of space).

The study also gave no consideration to the mobility of students and its effect on funding. Mobility not only gravely affects DCPS schools that take in students after the enrollment audit in October—without the money once attached to them—but also results in worse outcomes at schools with high churn, which are often DCPS schools of right that (unlike most charters and other schools of choice) have a mandate to take in students all year.

The only things mentioned in the study that appeared to have a passing acquaintance with either was the at risk preference in the lottery (which My School DC itself showed was at best inefficient and at worst completely ineffectual) and setting aside seats at schools with a lower concentration of at risk students (without, of course, ensuring those schools have the personnel and/or resources to accommodate those students).

While the study acknowledged diminishing test scores with higher poverty concentrations, it also never once noted that test scores may not be good indicators of achievement for low-income populations—especially when test scores are so closely tied to socioeconomics. (Indeed, early on the study made clear that “generally, with a few exceptions, school programs with lower per pupil spend serve a lower proportion of at-risk students and perform better on PARCC tests.”)

Thankfully, at both of their meetings thus far, working group members have raised valid concerns, including how at risk funds have not been necessarily effective and mis-used for years running; how measures for high school growth besides test scores are important; and how some types of students (undocumented, parenting students, and children whose parents are in jail) may be unhelpfully excluded from at risk categories.

Still, without acknowledging how school creation and proliferation creates, perpetuates, defunds, disadvantages, and ultimately closes DCPS “small” schools, tweaking the UPSFF appears to be rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship–much like changing DCPS’s budget model.

Which for all anyone knows may be the entire point of both exercises, as increases in the UPSFF are an unmitigated good for charters—which have caps on enrollment and can (and do) counsel out students–but are only the beginning for DCPS being made whole fiscally.

Perhaps the deputy mayor for education (whose office is behind both exercises) can explain why a small municipal treasure has been invested thus far in a rubric of equity and sustainability that ensures neither; ignores true costs; and will likely result in DCPS closures and further disenfranchisement from education rights.

Just don’t hold your breath.

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