Viewpoint: Charter students need equal city funding

DC International School, a public charter, is part of the redevelopment of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)

In a disappointing decision, a U.S. District Court judge recently ruled against the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought on behalf of the District of Columbia’s public charter schools. My organization, which represents D.C. charters, reluctantly joined with the Eagle Academy and Washington Latin public charter schools to seek a legal remedy to the District government’s ongoing flouting of its own public school funding law.

D.C.’s School Reform Act 1995 requires all public schools’ operating costs to be funded exclusively through a Uniform Per-Student Funding Formula. This formula stipulates that District public schools receive the same per-student amount for each child at the same grade or special education level. Yet the judge ruled contrary to the law’s letter and spirit.

Not disputed is the fact that the District government has for years violated the School Reform Act’s principle of equity by financing D.C. Public Schools outside the per-student formula. One respected report found that D.C. Public Schools, but not charters, received between $72 million and $127 million annually on top of formula funds — underfunding charter students by an average of $2,150 each year from 2008 to 2014, when the lawsuit was filed.

Government agencies also provide the school system with free services that include legal services and maintenance, among others. Additionally, per-student formula monies are allocated to DCPS based on often overly optimistic enrollment estimates (funds that are not then returned), whereas charters receive payment only for actual enrollment numbers.

Despite clear language in the School Reform Act and a legislative history that confirms that Congress intended that funding be uniform and cover all operating expenses of DCPS, the judge held that non-formula funding for DCPS does not violate the School Reform Act and that plaintiffs have no standing to challenge DCPS enrollment calculation methods.

Because the court did not set any limits on the District’s discretion to fund DCPS outside the per-student formula, it opens the door to this or a future D.C. Council eviscerating the School Reform Act’s uniform funding requirement in its entirety.

Open to all District students, charter schools educate nearly half of D.C. public school children. Publicly funded and tuition-free, charters determine their schools’ curriculum and culture and are held to account for improved educational outcomes by the city’s charter board, whose members are appointed by D.C.’s mayor. The board may approve or reject time-limited charter applications; monitors school performance; and can close campuses.

Unchallenged, the court’s decision would entrench unfairness that discriminates against some of the District’s most vulnerable children. Half of D.C. public school students are “at risk” — homeless or in foster care; eligible for government financial and nutrition assistance; or over-age and under-credited. Four in five charter students are economically disadvantaged, a higher share than DCPS.

Equity in city funding is especially important considering the impact charters have in the District’s most underserved neighborhoods. In wards 7 and 8, charter students are more than twice as likely to meet college and career readiness benchmarks on standardized tests as their counterparts in the D.C. Public Schools. And African-American high school students have an on-time graduation rate of 73 percent in charter schools, compared to 62 percent for DCPS.

From a school system in which an estimated half of students dropped out when the charter reform was introduced to the significantly higher graduation rates and standardized test scores of today, charters have led the way as results have improved in both sectors. Charters’ success also motivated the District to bring DCPS under mayoral control, with three pro-reform chancellors appointed since then.

Thanks to these successes, support for the School Reform Act is not confined to charter advocates. In a study to investigate school funding, the city itself concluded that this law “requires uniform funding of operating expenses for both DCPS and charter schools” and found D.C. public education funding is nonetheless “inequitable.”

The principle of equality enshrined in the School Reform Act is designed to treat children in all of our city’s public schools fairly in the distribution of local taxpayer funds for school operations. Why would our government not follow suit?

Ramona Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.