The Districts Dime

New Data Center for Schools Could Help Parents Even More With a Few Tweaks

January 20th, 2015 | by Soumya Bhat

With the city’s budget season fast approaching, particularly for education, parents should have an easier time this year seeing how their schools are funded, thanks to a new interactive data center available on the DCPS website. But that data could be even more useful with just a few adjustments.

The data center lets parents see how their schools are funded for the current school year (fiscal year 2015) or to make comparisons with other DCPS schools. For example, the site shows what percentage of a school’s budget is to be spent on early childhood education staff, and also how that figure compares, on average, with other DCPS elementary schools in the city. Users can also see trends in student enrollment and funding in key budget categories, such as special education or afterschool programs, between 2013 and 2015. 1.20.15 DCPS

DCFPI knows it’s no easy task to show budget information in appealing and interactive ways, but we do have a few ideas for how the site could be improved:   

  • The data center should use actual expenditures that would show parents how much of the budget actually gets spent on various things. It currently uses allocated budget figures, or what the schools intend to spend on staff and different budget categories.
  • Showing budget and/or expenditure information on a per-student basis would also be an effective way to create clear comparisons between schools.
  • Additional detail would also be helpful to understand the source of funding for certain budget categories. For example, a new source of funding for students considered at-risk of failure is included in two budget categories, “FY 2015 priorities” and the “DC Council supplement.” Also, there is no breakdown of the source of funds – whether federal or local dollars – in any category.

Initial decisions about how much goes into each DC Public School budget are made in March. Therefore, it is critical for DC parents to be able to understand their school’s budget for the current year to help them advocate for better budgets next year.

In addition to the new data center, when schools receive their initial FY 2016 budgets and principals make funding decisions with their Local School Advisory Teams (LSATs) to produce final budgets, the key budget files are expected to be available online like usual, under the Budget and Finance tab of the DCPS website.

DCFPI encourages our readers to take a look at the new site and offer feedback using the “Contact Us” tab.

To print a copy of today’s blog, click here.

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Supports for Parents Can Help Kids Enter School Healthy and Ready to Learn

January 15th, 2015 | by Wes Rivers

More District kids could start school healthy and ready to learn if the Mayor and DC Council expanded home-based child-rearing instruction for parents of young children to all eight wards. The Districts’ Maternal and Child Health Home Visiting program is an effective way to help hundreds of at-risk families, but it only operates in parts of the city due to limited funding. 

DCFPI’s home visiting transition brief details the benefits of the program and how further investments can ensure its success. The home visiting program is effective because it brings services to families in their most natural environment, the home. The District’s program uses three research-backed models which:12-11-14 HV1

  • Target expecting parents and families with children under age five.
  • Identify signs that children may be at risk for unhealthy development, such as a lack of prenatal care or a family history of substance abuse.
  • Teach parents ways to overcome barriers to success, like activities to help their child be ready for school and how to access community resources, health screenings and immunizations.
  • Improve cognitive development and learning.                                                        

Expanding this program will ensure that all at-risk children enter school healthy and ready to learn. We recommend the Mayor make a $10 million investment in the fiscal year 2016 budget to:

  • Provide services to 3,500 more children and cover all eight wards.
  • Improve training and certification of home visitors to increase the effectiveness and quality of programs.
  • Implement a common screening tool that all home visiting providers and the Department of Health can use to identify families in need and refer them to appropriate services.
  • Allow for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of home visiting practices and implementation of new practices that are proven to work.

To read a full copy of this transition brief, click here.

To print a copy of today’s blog, click here.

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We Can Do More to Help Homeless Residents

January 14th, 2015 | by Kate Coventry

In recent years, many homeless residents have not received the services they need to quickly get into a safe and stable home. Without help, they have struggled to hold down a job or regularly get needed services like counseling or medical treatment. Mayor Bowser and the DC Council should make it a priority to help homeless residents get back on their feet by:

Creating a plan for new family shelters in the next budget. DC currently allows families to enter shelters only during the winter, when the city must do so by law. Families who become homeless in the summer often couch surf for months, moving in with a different friend or family member every few days. This makes it difficult for parents to get to work and children to get to school. Families that get into DC General Family Shelter face deplorable and overcrowded conditions. DC can serve these families better by replacing DC General with smaller shelters with additional capacity.

Strengthening Rapid Re-housing to better serve families. Rapid Re-housing (RRH) combines short-term rental assistance with support services to help families move out of shelter. But it does not follow national recommended best practices, such as tailoring the length of rental assistance to a family’s circumstances and helping families quickly locate housing. Additionally there is no way for families who exit RRH to get help if they face challenges paying rent on their own. DC should quickly fix these problems.

Exploring ways to better serve young parents. Nearly half of families who entered shelter last winter were headed by a parent aged 24 or younger. These parents face unique challenges, often lacking a high school diploma or GED, having limited work experience, and never having their own home. Other cities offer young parents longer periods of rental assistance and more intensive job preparation services. The District should look to these cities as models. 

Jumpstarting efforts to end veteran homelessness by housing 50 veterans in permanent supportive housing (PSH) in 100 days. The city has devoted money to end veteran homelessness in 2015, but few have been housed so far. These veterans cannot afford to wait because they suffer from life-threatening physical and mental health problems. PSH combines housing with support services, leads to better health for residents, and saves the District money because residents rely less on expensive emergency rooms for healthcare.

Funding the new “Coordinated Entry” System to help homeless residents get help quickly and easily. Until recently, residents had to go from organization to organization to find out if they had housing openings. Coordinated Entry quickly matches homeless residents with available housing. The budget includes $250,000 to provide this service, but funding has been held back due to the city’s financial problems. This small amount of funding is critical to ensuring that individuals can move into housing as quickly as possible.

Supporting the upcoming Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) Strategic Plan. The ICH is creating a plan to tackle homelessness over the next five years. It will identify the number and type of housing assistance needed for homeless families, individuals, and youth. The District will need to redirect money from failing programs, leverage federal funding, and invest additional local funds to ensure that all homeless residents can get the services they need.

To read the full copy of DCFPI’s transition brief on family homelessness, click here.

To read the full copy of DCFPI’s transition brief on individual homelessness, click here.

To print a copy of today’s blog, click here.

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Reforms that Will Make It Easier To Apply for Public Benefits

January 13th, 2015 | by Wes Rivers

DC policymakers have built a strong set of supports for low-income residents, such as health care and food assistance, but many people have trouble applying for and renewing these benefits. To maintain a strong safety net, the District should work to fix long wait lines for social services and complex application processes, by continuing to incorporate technology into every program and by providing sufficient staffing to assist residents who apply in person.  
1-13-15 DCAS

The District is updating its outdated computer system for public benefits, including Medicaid, as a result of the Affordable Care Act. This new system holds great promise in the long-term for making Medicaid and other programs easier to apply for. However, staffing and technological challenges during the implementation have led to service breakdowns and have denied or delayed benefits for too many residents. These problems include:

  • Inadequate staffing at social service centers
  • Technology glitches
  • Long wait and application processing times
  • Missing documents and unsecure application processing at service centers
  • Unclear communication from agencies tasked to implement new policies and procedures

DCFPI’s transition report on reforming access to public benefits, written with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, proposes solutions to alleviate burdens faced by many beneficiaries, based on the actual experiences of DC residents who have been impacted by these breakdowns.

Notably, operations at DC’s social services centers have improved recently, following the release of a critical report earlier this year, and the District is collaborating with advocates to better inform and serve clients. However, further improvement in service delivery is needed to strengthen the safety net as DC continues to implement health reform and its new computer system. Here is how we can get there:

  • The Bowser administration should set goals for prompt and high-quality assistance for residents seeking public benefits. Long wait lines and lost documents should not be acceptable.
  • The District should have sufficient agency staffing and make technological improvements.
  • District agencies should develop clear rules for how residents apply for benefits, through regulations and guidance that are developed with public input. 
  • The District should continue to improve methods of distributing information to help residents understand the public benefits for which they may qualify.
  • District agencies should continue to collaborate with advocates.

To read a full copy of this transition brief, click here.

To print a copy of today’s blog, click here.

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DC Needs to Do More to Help Unemployed Parents

January 12th, 2015 | by Kate Coventry

With so many parents struggling to support their families, Mayor Bowser and the DC Council need to do more to help them get good jobs — and to help them get by until they find employment.

1-12-15 TANF percentage pov lineAn important tool for accomplishing this is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the nationwide welfare-to-work program. DC must do more to assist families that have suffered unemployment the longest and
are scheduled to be cut off from assistance later this year because of TANF time limits. Other steps DC needs to take include special job placement and support services so these parents can get jobs and succeed at work. Without this, thousands of children could fall deeper into poverty with little hope that their parents will find good jobs. Finally, the District needs to increase the level of financial assistance under TANF for all families so they can pay for such basics as housing and clothes. 

Even if they can’t find work, more than 6,000 parents are slated to be cut off from TANF in October, because they have received TANF for more than 60 months. They will lose cash assistance and important services, worsening the big challenges that already make it difficult to get jobs, like low literacy skills or disabilities. Many others will struggle to find a job despite their best efforts simply because unemployment remains high in the District among workers with less than a bachelor’s degree.

DC should do what most states do: allow some families to keep receiving TANF after they reach the time limit. It makes sense to prevent them from falling farther behind. Additionally, DC should implement services other states have found help families secure employment. This includes specialized “vocational rehabilitation” assessments to identify disabilities and helping individuals figure out how to cope with them at work. For example, some people have disabilities that make it difficult to remember verbal instructions. Vocational rehabilitation counselors can help negotiate with employers for such accommodations such as being allowed to tape-record instructions.

As things now stand, the level of TANF cash assistance is set to rise in October 2016. That needs to happen, which means it is important for Mayor Bowser and the DC Council to resist any temptation to use for other purposes the money set aside for this. The current low level of DC’s benefits, just $434 a month for a family of three, leaves many TANF families struggling to pay for basics like rent and clothing. DC’s TANF benefits equal just 26 percent of the federal poverty line of $19,790 a year. As the graphic shows, the buying power of TANF assistance has fallen because TANF hasn’t kept up with inflation and rising housing costs. The scheduled increase to about $650 a month for a family of three would be in line with other high-cost areas of the country.

Economic recovery in DC has been uneven, and many are still left behind. Helping families stay afloat until parents find work will ensure a brighter future.

To read the full copy of DCFPI’s TANF transition brief, click here.

To print a copy of today’s blog, click here.



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