Looking Away From Real DCPS Budget Problems

On January 20, the DC Council is holding a hearing (virtual because we’re in an emergency—just not for our teachers or students) on two bills on DCPS budgeting. Written by council chair Phil Mendelson, the bills come as DCPS works on a new budget model that would move away from a comprehensive staffing model to a student-based funding formula.

The apparent animating force behind both bills (only one of which will apparently move forward) is that individual DCPS school budgets are often wildly inadequate, inequitable, and highly variable, leading to annual whipsaws of layoffs; hiring frenzies; and unfilled positions through the school year.

While few outside the Wilson Building would dispute any of that, the problem with both bills is that they seem to do little to nothing to actually address any of those things. This may be because doing so would acknowledge the essential role of DCPS schools of right versus the nonessential role of all the rest of our publicly funded schools—a very inconvenient truth for DC’s education leaders.

These bills ignore that—as well as the logical budgeting fallacy that the uniform per student funding formula (UPSFF) is sufficient as a budgetary indicator of fairness and equity, with its weights for different categories of students and its application to all publicly funded schools.

One bill, 570, has provisions to divide the DCPS budget into three pots—one for central administration, one for school supports, and one going to schools directly. It reduces the central administration to no more than 3% of the gross DCPS budget and demands that DCPS begin with each school’s prior year’s budget and adjust accordingly for enrollment increases or decreases. There’s also a little bit about adjusting for inflation and using actual salaries.

All of which seems good on its face—except that there is nothing about the fact that those 3 pots are already in existence in the budget process nor about the fact that DCPS currently fudges what is for school support versus simply central administrative costs, such that without any explicit definition of those pots in the legislation itself (and there is none that I could find), the 3% limit is essentially unenforceable—which may be the point. The legislation thus appears to give the chancellor carte blanche to do what he wants to do with very large amounts of money, which has been and continues to be a huge problem for both budgeting stability as well as equity.

Then there is the fact that DCPS central covers some expenses that have nothing to do with getting a degree—like sports. Yet this bill (whose purpose ostensibly is to ensure budget stability) gives no clue as to what is worth protecting each year at the school and support level and what isn’t. Is it only degree-related functions? Or other things as well—and, if so, which? By not being explicit about this central tenet of stability, the legislation opens the door to DCPS defining those things itself—which (again) doesn’t ensure stability at all, but simply gives another lever to the chancellor to fund (or defund) anything as he wishes without regard to equity or stability.

The other bill, 571, is much simpler, inasmuch as it doesn’t allow for any school to receive less than 100% of its UPSFF funds unless its configuration changes such that it loses a grade or is otherwise consolidated. Because this is being invoked under a section of code that applies also to charter schools, it leaves open the possibility that this will also apply to charters and thus be a potential boon to those otherwise losing enrollment. (Not to mention a potential boon to charter advocate campaign donors, who have contributed more than $6000 to the chairman’s re-election campaign fund since August 2021.)

Regardless, the assumption with bill 571 appears to be that at no point will a school’s starting budget ever decrease from its budget of the year before. Despite this admirable reach for budget stability (albeit with potentially far-reaching but thus far unexplored fiscal consequences), the bill doesn’t make any effort to strengthen prior legislation that ensured no more than a 5% swing annually in individual DCPS school budgets. The reason that 5% clause is important, and needs to be kept and extended, is that it ensured flexibility while also not giving the chancellor a green light to decrease school budgets more than 5%—which this legislation appears to allow.

Indeed, there seems to be nothing in this bill stopping the chancellor from simply changing grade configurations of a school with any decrease in its enrollment as a way of effectively defunding it more than 5% of its prior budget. The bill thus appears to preserve budget stability all the while not even pretending to stand in the way of the chancellor doing exactly the opposite.

And this is where we get to the heart of the matter that both bills entirely sidestep.

The comprehensive staffing model of DCPS was the one time that every person in DCPS—and DC education leaders—acknowledged that DCPS is a system of schools of right and, as such a system, needed to have equity across the city that went beyond the UPSFF. The idea—if not the execution—was that all comprehensive high schools needed X positions; that all elementary schools needed Y positions; and that all middle schools needed Z positions. (Comprehensive staffing is, in fact, the rationale behind the legislative amendment passed in 2021 to ensure that DCPS provide a librarian in all its schools for SY21-22—an amendment that the council chair pointedly did not support and voted “present” for.)

Because what DCPS as an LEA is given via the UPSFF is not what individual DCPS schools receive, we have often witnessed the annual ironic exercise of the mayor or chancellor saying the budget for our publicly funded schools increased, while DCPS schools see their own allocations decreased–sometimes with no enrollment loss.

In fact, the current DCPS chancellor has cut individual school budgets every year he has been in charge of DCPS. Most years there has been no shortfall of funding overall in DCPS or in the city as a whole.

But here’s the thing: The chancellor is not acting in a vacuum.

For years, DCPS has been moving away from a comprehensive staffing model into more student-based budgeting, driven in the main by enrollment. Student-based budgeting is in fact how our charters are funded by DC: you have X enrollment, so you get Y dollars for educational programming via the UPSFF and Z dollars for facilities via the per pupil facilities fee.

DCPS has now introduced its new budget model, which is almost entirely driven by student enrollment. Though no one yet knows what this will mean in actual dollars for actual schools next school year, the DCPS presentation in November outlined that it will consist of schools generating their own funding—via students.

Let that sink in.

As the accountant pleasantly intones in the video linked above, schools will “generate” funds in this new budget model. It’s as if reality itself–that a public institution that guarantees education rights inherently entails costs, not profits–is foreign and suspect. Instead, we will have literal public profit drivers (students), with schools existing as a result of student attendance—and not the other way around.

Or, to put it more bluntly:

A school is only worthy of its existence depending on the numbers of its students—not as a public institution of right in a neighborhood or as part of a city-wide system that guarantees education rights in every quarter.

Neither of these bills touch any of this, even though both were drafted after DCPS had made several presentations about its new budget model.

That suggests that the chair of the council has no concerns about DCPS doing away with a system of schools, some of which guarantee education rights, in favor of a system of students (or, perhaps more precisely, a bunch of students in a bunch of schools that happen to be run by DCPS and that are essentially equivalent to any other publicly funded schools in DC and that need to prove their future existence annually).

It also suggests the chair of the council has no interest in real equity in DCPS—the kind that the UPSFF cannot by any means guarantee in DCPS, despite its provision of a seemingly fair and transparent level of funding for a wide variety of students. (The story of this failing in DCPS is longstanding—see here for a recent outline.)

Sadly, the bills also overlook problematic structural funding issues that disadvantage DCPS schools of right and hurt overall school funding:

–Charters do not have any legal requirement to use their facilities fees for . . . anything. The fees are based not on actual enrollment, but estimated enrollment, and there is no public accounting for that difference. And no one knows what part of DC charter assets increasing by at least $40 million annually is a result of the banking of facilities fees. (We do know, however, that no one in the chairman’s office appears interested in changing any of that.)

–Many DCPS schools of right often receive students after count day when enrollment audits are performed. This is because money for enrollment does not follow students, so charters are incentivized to have a robust enrollment at the count to ensure as much funding as possible–and then not worry about students who either don’t do well or who are counseled out after that date. Those students return to their schools of right, costing DCPS money that charters do not return and that no budget acknowledges adequately.

–The UPSFF itself has never been funded to the level recommended many years ago. That it has been raised in fits and starts since then is nice—but pretending it’s adequate by silence isn’t a good look for a supposed and experienced budget hawk like the council chair.

–Like charters, DCPS is currently forced to pay its utility expenses through the UPSFF. But because DCPS maintains a much larger portfolio of buildings (remember: a system of schools citywide—for now, at least), DCPS’s burden of expense is much greater than the charter sector’s—in fact, more than twice as much per student. This structural inequity has never been acknowledged in any school budgets.

–The fiscal black hole of ever-increasing schools and seats in DC funded by the public without a commensurately growing student population will eventually consume charters, too. To date, however, its main victims have been DCPS schools of right, which have been closed as seats and schools have increased in number, which has resulted in neighborhoods literally deprived of any school of right. And that’s not even mentioning how fiscally wasteful those unneeded seats and schools are, while the churn of students in the wake of closures is demonstrably harmful—and all without increasing student achievement overall or narrowing achievement gaps.

Instead of addressing any of this budgetary harm (none of which is new, BTW), the chair of the council has with these bills pretended to ensure budget stability and equity by essentially declaring that all DC’s publicly funded schools are the same; that the UPSFF is sufficient as a guarantor of equity; and that giving the chancellor carte blanche to reconfigure schools at his discretion and to define what is budgetarily protected (and how) will mean budget stability when it never has and never will.

Given that the chair just blocked a bill to improve the generally terrible way covid is reported in DCPS (then turned around and sent a letter to the chancellor demanding improvement in covid reporting after the chancellor refused to meet with him), these bills seem cut from a similar cloth: governance that appears to make change without anything actually changing.

At least those who are actually in our schools are not content with the unsatisfactory status quo–be sure to sign this petition to ensure covid staff are hired, as promised but not delivered by the mayor.

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