Staff Editorial: After court ruling, council should clarify charter school funding

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Charter advocates have complained inequitable treatment based on generous city spending on D.C. Public Schools facilities, such as the lavish $165 million upgrade to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)
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In recent years, we’ve heard a group of D.C. public charter schools and their advocates argue that the District wasn’t providing them their legally required funding.

Essentially, they claim the city has skirted a law requiring equivalent per-pupil funding between the D.C. Public Schools system and charters — publicly funded, city-regulated, independently operated programs that represent nearly half the District’s public education enrollment.

Instead, charter advocates contend, the District has been providing some $2,150 more to each student in traditional public schools, through elaborate facility modernizations and other government services that aren’t offered to charters. This criticism was the basis for a lawsuit filed in 2014 in U.S. District Court.

This month, a federal judge ruled against the charters, concluding that the District’s current funding scheme is indeed legally compliant. We’re not lawyers, so we won’t opine on the legal basis for the judge’s decision, but we do feel this situation calls for greater legislative clarity. If a large group of local activists and nonprofits goes to court challenging the city government about its interpretation of a law, we feel that’s a pretty clear sign that the D.C. Council should review that law.

Although these debates over inequitable funding have swirled for years, we believe that in the wake of the court ruling, it’s time for legislators to examine where these issues stand. This review would provide all stakeholders — representing both charter schools and traditional public schools — a formal venue to advocate for their desired funding.

Charters can argue for a funding formula that helps their facilities equal the fancy buildings offered to a growing number of D.C. Public Schools students. Other stakeholders can make their case for the status quo, in which the District’s own school system receives greater support from other government agencies, among other perks. There may also be a role in this process for the Deputy Mayor for Education’s Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, which looks more broadly at how D.C. Public Schools and charter schools can complement each other to serve local students.

And then, having heard and considered the testimony from all sides, the council can either revise the law or adopt an amendment that clarifies its original intent. Few parties benefit when decisions have to be made in the federal court system.

The District’s 120 public charter schools collectively serve 46.1 percent of students in the city’s public education system. While critics argue that charters can undermine neighborhood schools, it would be inappropriate to ignore funding complaints from an education option that serves so many D.C. students. The judge’s decision provides an opportune time for the council to review the laws pertaining to charters’ funding levels to make sure that no D.C. children are shortchanged.