What Price for Education?

May 27th, 2009 | by Ed Lazere

This year’s budget debate raised two critical school finance questions – with big dollar amounts and with emotions running high.  The issues involve just how much funding DCPS should get for basic operations and how much the city should pay for charter school facilities.

While the budget was adopted on May 12, these issues haven’t really been resolved yet.

DCPS Funding: The Council set aside $28 million of DCPS funds because it believed the enrollment projection was unrealistically high.  The Mayor assumed DC Public School enrollment would grow modestly and that public charter schools would grow a lot, resulting in combined enrollment growth of 3,000.  This left the Council scratching its head, because combined enrollment has been falling. DCPS would get the set-aside funds in the fall if the enrollment projection holds true.

Chancellor Rhee responded that this equivalent to a budget cut. The count occurs in October, which means DCPS would have to start the year working on the lower budget amount.

We tend to sympathize with DCPS.  DCPS needs to know its budget now so that it can plan for the start of the school year.  Its enrollment estimate is based on an independent study, though for a few technical reasons it may be a little too high.  Moreover, if we want a school system where students can choose to attend a public school or a charter, the price for that flexibility may be to over-estimate enrollment a bit each year.  Since we don’t really know where students will end up, both DCPS and public charter schools deserve the benefit of the doubt on enrollment.

This year’s brouhaha suggests that it may be time to come up with a new funding formula that is tied to actual staffing and other operating needs.

Charter School Facilities: Currently, each public charter school gets an annual facility allocation per pupil. But different charter schools have different needs – some are paying off big mortgages, while others operate rent free. If a charter gets more facility money than it needs, it gets to keeps the extra.

The Mayor’s budget made a seemingly reasonable proposal to give charters only enough to cover actual facility expenses, which would have saved $24 million.  But the charters cried foul, saying they need the full payments to build up reserves for future needs.

The Council restored most of the cut, but left in place the one-size-fits all funding formula. Council Chairman Gray pledged to spend this year figuring out the right way to support charter school facilities. For the sake of good policy and DC’s finances, this is important. One way to reduce facility expenses is to do more to help charters get access to excess DC public school space.

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