Pressure grows for more schools funding

In an interview with The Current, Mayor Muriel Bowser defended several contentious positions on education, including the school funding formula. (Susann Shin/The Current/April 2017)

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 2018 budget has the official tagline of the “largest investment in public education in history.” But critics say the funding does not match the rate of inflation, and some of the city’s largest schools would see staff cuts under the plan.

Education advocates want the budget to include a 3.5 percent increase in the city’s per-student funding formula to match inflation, and they’re hoping the D.C. Council will find more funding. That rate was also initially recommended by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Bowser announced last Thursday she would amend her budget proposal to include additional one-time funding to reach a 2 percent increase, rather than the 1.5 percent she had requested previously. This extra per-pupil funding would include $3.8 million toward D.C. Public Schools and $3.2 million for D.C. public charter schools.

D.C. Council members Mary Cheh (Ward 3) and David Grosso (at-large) said in a joint statement last Thursday that they plan to add more recurring dollars. Advocates will be watching closely as the council’s Education Committee, which Grosso chairs, marks up the budget this Thursday before the full council votes on the spending plan at the end of the month.

“We, along with parents, teachers, students, administrators, and advocates were very disappointed when we received a budget that leaves our schools without the resources to put every child in the best position to succeed,” Grosso and Cheh said in their statement.

Catharine Bellinger, director of D.C. Democrats for Education Reform, said both the public and charter school communities want to see legislators work out more funding. “We’re optimistic about the opportunity for the council to make a substantive increase,” she said.

Wilson High School is located at 3950 Chesapeake St. NW in Tenleytown. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2016)

Education advocates said that under Bowser’s earlier proposal, the 1.5 percent increase in per-pupil funding, there would be about nine staff members lost at Wilson High School — which would bring its total number of cuts to 30 staffers over the past three years, according to Ward 3 State Board of Education member Ruth Wattenberg.

Columbia Heights Educational Campus, with a steady enrollment of 1,400, would lose two staff members; Eastern High School in Northeast was budgeted for 9.2 fewer full-time positions; and Ballou High School in Southeast would drop by 6.2.

Specific staffing levels at Bowser’s newly proposed 2 percent level aren’t yet available, and the mayor said at a news conference that the increase would go into a general pot of money for D.C. Public Schools without being legislatively dedicated for a specific school.

In terms of Wilson High, mayoral spokesperson Kevin Harris said in a statement that the budget numbers “are a reflection of student enrollment slightly decreasing, not the Mayor’s clear and consistent commitment to both walk the walk and talk the talk on education funding above and beyond any other time in the system’s history.”

However, according to the Bowser administration’s budget proposal, Wilson High’s enrollment is projected to go down by just eight students in fiscal year 2018.

Citywide, more than 1,000 people have signed onto an online petition calling for a 3.5 percent increase in per-student funding. Matthew Frumin, an American University Park resident who is active on education issues, said many people want to see the money go toward schools “that have been most hard hit this budget cycle.”

Advocates haven’t overlooked the fact that the expected staffing cuts for these schools come at a time of record revenue for the District. Also playing into the debate has been $100 million in long-planned tax cuts, which Grosso and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute have called to delay in order to increase funding in education and other services. But business groups and the mayor have pushed back at delaying any tax breaks, which were recommended by the D.C. Tax Revision Commission in 2013.

Antwan Wilson became the D.C. schools chancellor in 2017. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2017)

Meanwhile, in an interview, Council member Cheh called the mayor’s proposed funding “insufficient.” Earlier, at a council Education Committee meeting on May 5, she pressed the issue with D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson.

With Wilson High, the chancellor told council members that the school has enough funding to expand course offerings, and that the school’s leadership is “confident it will continue to be a great school” despite the staffing cuts.

“It’s not what we’re hearing on the ground,” Cheh replied. “There’s not satisfaction among the parents.”

Education board member Wattenberg said that in the future, the chancellor should gather “real input from the schools about where the dollars should go” by speaking with parents and staff members more closely. “The budget process has been broken for a while,” she said.