The Districts Dime

Tackling Poverty Is Key to Improving Educational Outcomes in DC

October 9th, 2014 | by Jenny Reed and Soumya Bhat

The District’s approach to boosting student achievement needs to go beyond improving classroom instruction to also address the challenges that poor children bring with them to school. Low-income children are more likely than others to show up to school hungry or malnourished; exposed to trauma, stress and violence; affected by family or neighborhood instability; or coping with severe health problems.    

A new series of reports from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, Unlocking Opportunities, highlights how poverty affects children and their educational outcomes, and what DC schools are doing – and should be doing – to address it. The reports find that the District offers a number of programs to help low-income students succeed in the classroom, but there are still large gaps that need to be filled. 10.9.14 Unlocking Opportunities

Fortunately, services provided through schools can alleviate poverty’s impact – unlocking opportunities and allowing all students to reach their potential. From increasing attendance to raising grades and test scores, to decreasing discipline and behavior problems, supports that go beyond classroom instruction can remove the barriers to learning that low-income children face.

And school is an ideal location to deliver services. Children and families are more likely to take advantage of health and other services when they are located in a school. Staff delivering these services can work directly with teachers to let them know where to refer students and to offer advice on addressing problem behaviors in their classroom.

The District offers many programs that help low-income students — helping students with mental health challenges, improving access to primary care, and providing nutritious meals, for example. But there are still large gaps. The number of homeless students is rising, but federal funding is low and falling. Approximately 5,000 DC children don’t have access to needed mental health services. And some school nurses and social workers have caseloads well beyond industry standards.

The District has a unique opportunity to expand non-instructional services for low-income students through the addition this year of an at-risk weight to the school funding formula. With $2,000 of additional funds per at-risk student, both DC Public Schools and public charter schools have new resources to help low-income students succeed.

The complete Unlocking Opportunities series takes a deeper look at services for students who are homeless, mental health services, expanded learning programs, schools as community hubs, parent engagement services and health and nutrition services in schools. Each of these briefs explores ways to remove the barriers to learning that poverty creates. Our final recommendations summarize important steps DC should take to lessen the impact that poverty has on children and thus boost educational outcomes in DC.

To read the complete Unlocking Opportunities series, click here.

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DC Council: Don’t Weaken a Bill That Will Develop Affordable Housing across DC

October 7th, 2014 | by Wes Rivers and Jenny Reed

The DC Council will vote today on legislation that could use disposition of DC-owned land to create new affordable housing throughout the District—provided the Council doesn’t approve two potential amendments that would significantly weaken the bill. These amendments could remove transparency and accountability from the land disposition process and make it easier for developers to reduce the length of time new housing must remain affordable.

The Disposition of District Land for Affordable Housing Act of 2013 would allow DC’s public land to be sold below market value and in return would require developers to make a portion of the new housing built there affordable. This smart approach pairs private and public resources toward the creation of badly needed low-cost housing, creates mixed-income communities, and helps low-income residents live in rapidly developing areas with greater chances of economic opportunity.

 The bill would use public land value to generate mixed-income communities with a substantial amount of affordable housing. It would require 30 percent of new housing built near public transportation to be affordable. Elsewhere, 20 percent of the units would need to be affordable.

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For rental properties, a quarter of the affordable units would be for people with incomes under $29,000 for a family of three (30 percent of AMI), and the rest would be for residents making up to $48,300 for a family of three (50 percent of AMI) For homeowner properties, the affordable units would be split between residents earning under $48,300 and those earning under $78,200 for a family of three (80 percent of AMI)..

Yet, two potential amendments could significantly weaken the bill by:

 Removing the Chief Financial Officer’s independent evaluation. One amendment would

 allow the mayor to waive the affordable housing requirements for any given project, without any documentation to justify it. In contrast, the current bill entrusts DC’s CFO to provide an independent, expert assessment of whether a development can meet the affordability requirements. Without it, public land dispositions would lack transparency and there would be no way to ensure that affordable housing is maximized. The CFO has testified that they can administer the review process.

Allowing affordable housing units to disappear over time. Another amendment would allow the time period for affordability requirements to be shortened by the mayor. In DC and across the country, communities struggle to replace affordable housing when requirements end after 10 or 20 years, before the end of a building’s useful life. The bill recognizes that the District’s land is a public asset, and it should be leveraged to require housing built through land dispositions to remain affordable for the life of the building.

The District’s publicly owned land presents a unique opportunity to use the rapid growth in property values to create a greater number of affordable units. By offering land at a discount, the District can create affordable housing units without using a tax dollars. In return, low-income residents get to live in mixed-income areas that have greater economic opportunities such as access to job centers, higher-quality schools, and greater public amenities. 

 That is why the DC Council should vote yes on this bill and no to the proposed amendments that would significantly weaken its ability to create desperately-needed low-cost units across DC.

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Community Advocates Release Set of Guiding Principles for Public Education

October 2nd, 2014 | by Soumya Bhat

This week, education advocates from across the District released a set of principles for a more equitable and effective public education system in the city. So far, over 60 organizations and community members, including the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, have signed on. The principles, intended to inform the new mayor and DC Council, focus on improving access to quality neighborhood schools, targeting resources on low-income students, and improving coordination between DC Public Schools and the charter school sector. 

Here are some highlights: 

  1. Ensure all families have access to high-quality DCPS schools in their neighborhoods – a predictable, matter-of-right path from preschool through high school.   The message from the public in the Deputy Mayor for Education’s (DME’s) Student Assignment process was clear: While residents want the ability to select alternatives, they do not want to be at the mercy of a lottery for access to a school that can fully meet the needs of their children and community
  2. Focus resources on students and communities with the greatest need. Schools serving children with the greatest need often lack the resources they require and face the highest staff turnover. To address these inequities, the District should fully implement the recently enacted “at-risk” weight in the school funding formula, which provides added resources to DCPS and charter schools based on the number of low-income students. The city also should improve access citywide to magnet and specialty programs and strengthen early childhood education.
  3. Coordinate planning between the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) to build a core system of stable DCPS neighborhood schools with a complementary set of alternative options.  Coordinated planning for all Pre-K-to-12 education, overseen by an accountable city agency, with active community input, will enable the District to more efficiently manage school modernizations, expansions, closings, and openings.  It also would help disseminate successful policies, programs and practices identified in both the DCPS and charter sectors.
  4. Responsibly manage our financial resources. 
    • Improve transparency of the DCPS budget, and commence budget planning in the fall to give sufficient time for community input.

    • Require full transparency of charter school budgets, including payments to private entities and full audit.
    • Provide DCPS and each charter LEA the funding required to meet the needs of their students. The compass point is adequate funding, not mathematical parity between schools and LEAs with dramatically different needs.

  5. Broaden assessment measures to focus on student growth and use multiple measures to assess a quality education.  The District should follow the lead of other districts that are diversifying measures of student achievement and teacher and school effectiveness  in order to provide parents with accurate information and enable the city to provide targeted support where needed. This means having a well-rounded curriculum in all matter-of-right schools, reducing the emphasis on snapshot measures of proficiency toward measures that focus on student growth, and making public data disaggregated by income, race and geography.
  6. Ensure families and community members have reliable ways to exercise the right to participate in public education decision making. The research is clear that community engagement and ownership are key to improvement.
    • Strengthen and support mechanisms such as Local School Advisory Teams (LSAT) and School Improvement Teams (SIT) to engage communities in school planning. 

    • Support or create parent/teacher or home school organizations at all by-right schools.

    • Build on mechanisms such as the Budget Taskforce, the DCPS Parent Cabinet, the elected school board, the PCSB Community Advisory Group and DME taskforces to secure ongoing oversight and community input in decision making for our schools.

 To learn more and show your support, visit here.

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A New Future for New Communities

September 30th, 2014 | by Jessica Fulton


A new report commissioned by the District acknowledges that an effort to transform four communities characterized by deteriorated public housing — the New Communities Initiative — is way behind schedule and needs a reset. To reach completion, the project needs an additional $200 million and a host of administrative changes. But the challenges in redeveloping these areas — Barry Farm, Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings, Northwest One, and Park Morton —  serious questions about whether this is the best way to use such a large amount of public resources. 

Some recommendations, such as updating project timelines and creating a well-defined management system, would help ease resident fears; others, like eliminating the requirement to replace the large bedroom sizes of some apartments, could prove to be harmful to the communities. 

Given the District’s serious affordable housing problems, it makes sense that any effort to redevelop public housing should maintain the affordability and protections residents currently have and should reject changes that may limit affordable housing creation and retention. With that in mind, some of the Policy Advisor’s Recommendations on the District of Columbia’s New Communities Initiative appear reasonable: 

  • Update timelines to be more realistic: Right now, none of the projects is on schedule, leaving residents unsure of their futures. 
  • Clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the District and the DC Housing Authority. These agencies must work together on the New Communities Initiative, but as of yet lack well-defined written guidelines for who is responsible for which tasks. 
  • Establish uniform and fair rules for which residents will be allowed to move into replacement housing. The requirements residents must meet to qualify for the new housing are not clear to all residents. In addition, residents will likely have to meet qualifications set by the developer of each property, which could make it difficult for some residents to return. The requirements should be designed to broadly allow residents who were following rules in their former home to qualify for a new one. 

The report also includes some recommendations that might negatively affect New Communities’ residents. These include: 

  • Broadening the geographic boundaries for each site. The report recommends developing replacement units beyond the boundaries of existing communities because it has been difficult for the District to find affordable land at certain sites. This could disperse members of tightly knit communities, many of whom may want to remain in their neighborhoods.  At Barry Farm, for example, 70 percent of residents want to return to their community.
  • Not replacing all large public housing units. The report argues that because larger bedroom sizes are not economical, the District should find other options for larger families. But because public housing is often the “housing of last resort” for families with no other options, this could diminish housing opportunities for large families.   

The report finds that $200 million in funding — which has not been identified — is needed to complete the New Communities Initiative redevelopment, and this figure does not include infrastructure improvements that will bring the cost even higher. With such a large investment needed, it may be time to take a look at the goal of this project — revitalizing housing for public housing residents — and decide how to best move forward. This could mean continuing with the New Communities plan, but it would also be worth exploring other approaches.  

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How to Meet the Needs of Soccer Stadium Neighbors? A Community Benefits Agreement

September 26th, 2014 | by Wes Rivers

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Mayor Gray’s proposal for a new soccer stadium at Buzzard Point raises a number of concerns. But for neighbors in Southwest, the most important issue is the impact on their community, their homes, and job opportunities. That’s why a coalition of Southwest residents, led by the Community Benefits Coordinating Council, have approached District officials and DC United with a detailed proposal to protect the community and provide job, recreation, and other opportunities to nearby residents. 

The residential neighborhood adjacent to Buzzard Point is economically diverse – with affordable and public housing units, as well as mixed income condominium and apartment buildings. However, the community has not benefited much from the development at Nationals Park and the Navy Yard, and has several pressing needs – including jobs, work-readiness and training, access to health care, and inadequate recreational facilities. 

That’s why the coalition has begun negotiations with the city and the team for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) – a legally binding contract to address specified community needs. CBAs across the country have helped low- and moderate-income neighborhoods benefit from big development projects. For example, a CBA tied to the development of Staples Center in Los Angeles led to new parks and recreational space, job readiness programs, and affordable housing. 

Here are the highlights of the Southwest community’s CBA request: 

Preserve Affordable Housing: The coalition is asking that the city commit to preserving the existing affordable housing in the area, because the stadium and related development could create pressure to redevelop older public housing buildings. Affordable housing preservation will allow lower-income residents to stay in the neighborhood and take advantage of the jobs and amenities from the new development.

 Support Jobs: The proposed CBA calls for the team to set aside some of the stadium’s construction and operation (ticketing, concessions, guest services) jobs for residents living in the immediate neighborhood. This, along with city funds for workforce development and training, will help residents gain long-term employment.  

Create a community fund: The coalition is asking for a $5 million community fund to support recreational and educational programming for the community’s youth. The CBA will also call for funds for the Randall Recreation and Author Capper Community Centers.  

The Southwest CBA will hold the team and the city responsible for making sure that a new soccer stadium benefits the entire neighborhood, rather than leaving existing residents behind.

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