The Districts Dime

Our Thoughts for Tomorrow’s DC Public Schools Budget Hearing

April 16th, 2014 | by Soumya Bhat

4-16-14-DCPS-Testimony-blogTomorrow, DCFPI will join over 60 witnesses to testify at the DC Council’s budget hearing for DC Public Schools (DCPS). There are several promising proposed changes to the school funding formula this year, including a two percent increase to the base level, a new supplement weight for at-risk students, and increased local resources for adult, alternative, English language learner, and special education students. DCFPI is highly supportive of these enhanced local resources, but we want to ensure that the allocation is transparent and that the DCPS schools with the biggest concentrations of need see their share of the city’s educational investments.   

Our review of the budget suggests that the changes are not transparent enough to allow parents and other stakeholders to assess whether their school is getting its fair share of education resources. 

You can find the full testimony here. See below for a few highlights: 

Lack of Transparency for At-Risk Funds: DCFPI is excited about the $44 million in funding for 21,000 at-risk DCPS students through the school funding formula, but concerned that the proposed budget does not show how or where at-risk funds would be spent. The new funds appear to be wrapped up in a number of initiatives – see the next point – but there is no strict accounting of how the new funds will be targeted to help at-risk students. Moreover, there are clear instances where schools with large concentrations of at-risk students – such as Anacostia High School – would not see much of an increase next year. 

Several New Initiatives for DCPS Schools: The proposed DCPS budget would offer extended school day options for all middle schools and the lowest 40 performing elementary schools.  Some $5.7 million is proposed to lengthen the school day to 4:15pm for four days a week at 52 schools, provided teachers support it. “Proving What’s Possible” student satisfaction awards, totaling $4.8 million across schools, would go towards field trips, enrichment activities, and anti-bullying programs. There also are proposed new funds for middle-school curriculum and staffing. However, it is not clear from the budget book whether or not these efforts were supported by the new at-risk funds, or if school leaders had flexibility to determine the best approach for their students. 

New Budget Format for DCPS: This year, the DCPS budget is also being presented in a new format, which includes allocations at the school level and attempts to make the official budget from the CFO better match the way DCPS spends its funds. Readers can now see how DCPS budgeted directly to individual schools, school-wide programs, school support, and central office funding. DCFPI is pleased that the Committee on Education has taken on the issue of school budget transparency head-on, and we look forward to working with them on further transparency improvements, some of which are highlighted in our testimony. 

You can find DCPS’ responses to pre-hearing questions on the Council website: http://dccouncil.us/budget/2015/education.

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Mayor’s FY 2015 Budget Proposes Expansion of Mental Health Services for Students

April 15th, 2014 | by Wes Rivers

Making sure that kids get proper health services is critical to their ability to learn and succeed in school. And with so many youth in the District facing mental health issues, it is particularly important for the District to invest in mental health services for students – as the mayor did with the FY 2015 budget proposal. 

Source:  Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

The need for mental health services is high among the District’s middle and high school students, especially in our poorest and lowest-performing schools. Children in poverty experience a high rate of emotional distress, leading to difficulties in the classroom and to more serious mental health issues later in life. DC Action for Children estimates between 7,200 and 9,200 District children have severe mental health issues. 

The South Capitol Street Memorial Act of 2012 authorized the creation of the school-based mental health program – which places trained mental health professionals in traditional public and public charter schools in DC. The staff offer a range of services, from classroom prevention sessions to more targeted student treatment and family counseling. 

Proposed FY 2015 funding for early childhood and school-based mental health programming is $8.5 million, which includes a $3 million increase to add more school-based mental health professionals and to support projected salary and fringe benefit increases in existing positions. That means 23 more schools could receive services. Additionally, the mayor’s priority funding list, which includes initiatives that would be funded if revenues next year exceed current projections, proposes adding $2 million for 23 more schools, for a total increase of $5 million and 46 new schools next year.  

Lack of funding in the past has made it difficult to create a comprehensive program across the city. Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, only 72 public schools offered mental health screenings, referrals, and counseling to their students, with more than half operating in Wards 6, 7, and 8. The good news is that the program has delivered 2,500 individual counseling sessions so far this school year, and almost 20,000 counseling sessions since the beginning of the 2011-12 school year. However, the program maintains a full-time caseload of only 629 students, despite having almost six times that number in referrals. 

The expansion to 23 new schools would mean that more than 7,200 DCPS and charter school students would have access to services. If the additional schools on the mayor’s priority list are funded, 118 District schools would have access to mental health professionals.  

DCFPI applauds the mayor and the Department of Behavioral Health for addressing a critical need among the District’s youth and a major barrier to educational success. We hope the Council approves the proposed budget for school-based mental health, and prioritizes the mayor’s request for $2 million in additional funding.

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Bringing Our Veterans Home

April 14th, 2014 | by Kate Coventry

Communities around the country have been working hard to end homelessness among veterans by the deadline of 2015 set by the federal government. And now DC is, too! Mayor Gray’s proposed budget for next year puts the District on track to meet this goal, by making a $4.7 million investment in permanent supportive housing for vets. With an additional local investments in 2016, the District will ensure that no one who has served our country will be living on the streets or in shelter for years at a time. 4-14-14-Homeless-vets-f1

Veterans are at particular risk for homelessness. Many become homeless for the same economic reasons as others: unemployment or low wage employment and lack of affordable housing. But a large number of homeless veterans suffer from serious conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, serious physical disabilities, and addiction. These conditions are difficult to manage while homeless, meaning they often get worse and put residents at risk of dying on the streets.  That’s why veterans living in poverty are more than twice as likely to be homeless as other poor single adults. 

The mayor’s investment will serve provide permanent supportive housing using a nationally-proven “Housing First” model that combines housing with supportive services. Starting with stable housing, will help homeless vets improve their physical and mental health, because it is easier for people to address those conditions when they have the foundation of a home. It also will save the city money, by avoiding expensive crisis-related services like emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, and jail. Studies from other jurisdictions have found savings of up to $30,000 per person per year. 

DCFPI is thrilled that the District is creating a way home for our veterans who desperately need it with the fiscal year 2015 budget. To learn more about efforts to combat chronic homelessness, check out www.thewayhomec.org.

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Making DC’s Tax System Fair: Progress in the 2015 Budget

April 11th, 2014 | by Ed Lazere

Most DC residents — like most Americans — agree that income tax rates should be graduated by income. Low-income households should pay the lowest rate, so that there is an incentive to work and they can support their basic needs. This kind of progressive approach also means tax rates get higher as incomes rise and as the ability to meet basic needs gets easier. Given the high cost of living in the District, using the tax system to help residents make ends meet is very important.

There is good tax news in Mayor Gray’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, including two steps to make DC’s income tax more progressive. Following recommendations of the DC Tax Revision Commission, the budget would lower the income tax rate on moderate income residents and keep an income tax bracket for very high-income residents that otherwise would soon expire.

Unfortunately, however, the proposed budget leaves the Commission’s most targeted income tax cut recommendations on a wish list. In other words, 4-10-14-income-tax-blog-f1there’s room for more progress.

Right now, DC residents who make $40,000 and those who make $350,000 pay the same rate tax rate. Putting moderate-income families in the same bracket as higher-income households contributes to middle-income residents facing substantial tax liabilities as a share of their income — among the highest in the nation, in fact. To address this, the Tax Commission recommended cutting the tax rate for middle incomes — and the FY 2015 budget takes a step in that direction. It would cut income taxes from 8.5 percent to 7.5 percent on income between $40,000 and $60,000, saving a single person $200 and a two-earner family up to $400. The commission recommended dropping the rate to 6.5 percent.

Mayor Gray’s budget also adopts the Tax Revision Commission recommendation to maintain a top income tax rate for residents with taxable incomes above $350,000 rather than letting it expire in 2016 as under current law. The proposed budget would also keep the current top rate at 8.95 percent and not lower it. Maintaining the top rate would generate millions in revenue to support public services and reduce taxes for middle- and lower-income families.

What about help for our lowest-income families? The Council has a chance to help to improve upon the mayor’s proposal by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without children or raising the standard deduction or personal exemption. This would help make work pay and help our most vulnerable families meet basic needs. You can read more about the Commission’s recommendation here.

As the Council works to refine next year’s budget, DCFPI will be looking for more progress on recommendations to reduce income taxes for residents who need help to make ends meet in the District.

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Stay the Course: Fund DC Health Link!

April 10th, 2014 | by Wes Rivers

The District’s online health insurance exchange, www.dchealthlink.com, has been lauded as a national model among state exchanges. But success doesn’t come cheap, and as federal start-up grants for Obamacare expire, the District needs a local, sustainable revenue source to fund operations and continue to help consumers get covered. DCFPI supports a proposal to implement a broad-based tax on health insurance to cover this important need for our community. 

Today, DCFPI policy analyst Wes Rivers testified before the DC Council on the exchange. DC Health Link has enrolled 40,000 people in plans since October. If the marketplace is to continue its success and expand to more residents and small businesses, it needs adequate and sustainable revenues for the future. Here is what policy analyst Wes Rivers had to say: 

DC Health Link’s proposed budget makes several critical that will help consumers navigate the new system and sign up for coverage.  

  • $5 million to maintain the call center, a critical component of consumer support in the District. In the first enrollment period, the call center fielded 86,000 calls for assistance.
  • $2 million to support case workers and front line staff at Department of Human Services’ offices. DHS sees a lot of Medicaid enrollees and, due to staffing and resource constraints, has had problems with long wait-times, delayed processing of applications, and even improper termination of benefits.
  • $1.4 million in consumer outreach and education, including the funding of two Navigator positions. Navigators perform the same functions as the in-person assisters currently helping residents through the application and enrollment process. DCFPI recommends monitoring the demand for in-person assistance through the next open enrollment period. If federal grant money may expire at the end of the year and demand is high, more local funding for in-person assistance programs will be needed.

DCFPI also supports funding DC Health Link’s operations through a sustainable, local funding source. The proposal is to assess, or tax, the premiums of all health insurance companies in the District, including companies operating inside and outside DC Health Link, Managed Care Organizations, and companies that sell supplemental products like disability or long-term care insurance. The broad-based assessment is logical because: 

  • A broad assessment will keep costs to individuals and small businesses as low as possible. Insurance carriers will pass on the assessment costs to consumers in the form of higher premiums, but if the assessment is broad, each individual premium will be affected minimally.
  • Consumers and small businesses benefit from a fully funded exchange – including a strong network of consumer assistance and a high-functioning IT system.
  • A fully funded exchange will be able to ensure consumer protections for plans sold on DC Health Link. For example, data collection regarding health plans’ provider networks would allow the Authority to improve consumer access to primary care doctors and specialists. 

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