DC Policymakers Must Make Bold Investments to Address Longstanding Educational Inequities

Kids playing outdoors

This blog post is part of a series on DCFPI’s Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Priorities. Read all of our related resources in our Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Toolkit, here.

DC’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 budget should recognize the unprecedented harm and ongoing consequences of the health pandemic on students, educators, and families. Low-income students—who are primarily Black, Latinx, and immigrant and living in communities and attending schools that were already under-resourced—deserve a just budget; one that acknowledges that they are shouldering the uneven health and economic burdens of the pandemic and that targets local and federal relief dollars to support their recovery. DC policymakers have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make substantial efforts to reduce longstanding educational inequities that the pandemic has now worsened. This budget season, the Mayor and DC Council should:

  • Not exclusively rely on an increase to the per-pupil base of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF) to address school funding inadequacy and inequity.
  • Fully fund the supplemental UPSFF weights for students who are considered “at-risk” of academic failure and for English Learners (EL) and enforce the DC law that requires DC Public Schools (DCPS) to supplement, not supplant general education funding with at-risk funds.
  • Ensure that every public school student and teacher has an appropriate learning/teaching device; low- and moderate-income families have access to reliable, affordable internet; and students, families, and school staff have adequate digital literacy support.
  • Expand The District’s school-based mental health program to all DCPS and public charter schools.
  • Redirect money from DCPS’s school security contract and the Metropolitan Police Department’s School Safety Division into resources that actually create safe environments and positive school cultures.
  • Hold harmless funding of Out-of-School Time programs.

A UPSFF Increase is Needed, But an Increase Alone is Not Guaranteed to Increase Funding Adequacy or Equity

The coronavirus pandemic has made the need for adequately and equitably funded schools ever more urgent. For years, policymakers have failed to fund the per-pupil funding base of the UPSFF at the level recommended in the 2013 Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) Adequacy Study. The recommended per-pupil base was $10,557, equaling $11,975 in today’s dollars. Currently, the per-pupil base is $11,310—nearly 6 percent below the inflation-adjusted recommended base. DCFPI has long called on policymakers to close the adequacy gap. If policymakers increased the per-pupil base by 6 percent, that would add $106.7 million for public schools with DCPS and public charter local school agencies (LEA) receiving $57.7 million and $49 million, respectively.

It is important to note, however, that the Adequacy Study was outdated before the coronavirus pandemic began and is not designed to address the new and urgent costs of providing an adequate education in pandemic and recovery contexts. In addition, the pandemic makes it even more clear that policymakers’ failure to deal with structural issues (such as inadequate enrollment projection methods for DCPS, cost differences between LEAs, and the lack of an actionable cross-sector plan to guide the opening of new schools) will continue to undermine the adequacy of yearly UPSFF increases. Further, the UPSFF per-pupil base functions as a tool of equality, not equity, meaning simple increases do not inherently lead to LEAs, schools, and students who are the most under-resourced receiving what they need and deserve. DCFPI strongly encourages policymakers to begin rectifying these structural issues to truly achieve school funding adequacy and equity.

More Targeted Supports Are Needed to Mitigate Widening Gaps in Learning Outcomes

The social and academic disruptions of the pandemic are making DC’s unacceptable racial and income gaps in learning outcomes worse than before. Fewer Black and Latinx students and students with disabilities in grades 3-8 are estimated to be on track to meet or exceed expectations on the city’s standardized math and reading tests than there were last year, according to a recent study from EmpowerK12. And, while all DC students have lost four months of learning in math and one month of learning in reading, on average, students who are at-risk have lost five months of learning in math and four months of learning in reading. Policymakers must make bold investments to reverse course and close these gaps.

Policymakers have a few options for boosting supports for students who are most at risk of losing ground in learning:

  • Raise the at-risk and EL weights to .37 from .2256 and to .61 from .49, respectively, bringing them to the levels recommended in the Adequacy Study. Raising the weights to these levels and closing the adequacy gap in the per-pupil base would add $78.5 million in at-risk funding and $22.1 million in EL funding, totaling $101 million over the FY 2021 approved budget.
  • Enforce the law that requires DCPS to supplement, not supplant, school budgets with at-risk dollars. Policymakers should also hold all public charter LEAs accountable for how they spend their at-risk funds and require standardized reporting.
  • Adopt the 2020 UPSFF Working Group’s recommendation to create a new at-risk weight that provides additional funding for students with two or more at-risk characteristics (e.g. low-income, homelessness, overage in high school). The working group also recommended that District make the EL weight non-binary and create different weights based on grade level. The group also recommended that the city add an additional EL weight for students who are designated as “new to the country”. DCFPI was a member of this working group and supports these suggested approaches.
  • Strongly suggest that LEAs allocate federal relief dollars to schools based on the proportion of at-risk and ELs students they serve. Policymakers should require LEAs to list these dollars as a separate line item in local school budgets to promote transparency.

Virtual Learning is Here to Stay: DC Must Close the Digital Divide

With virtual learning likely remaining an option for families over the summer and at the start of the next school year, the budget must ensure that every student has their own device (laptop or tablet). The budget must also ensure that teachers have adequate access to the devices they need to deliver high-quality virtual instruction to students. Digital Equity in DC Education previously estimated that achieving a 1:1 student-to-computer ratio and a 1:1 teacher-to-computer ratio within DCPS could cost at least $16 million more than The District is currently investing.

Ensuring a 1:1 student/teacher-to-device ratio is only half the battle in closing the digital divide—families also need access to reliable, affordable internet services at home. Currently, the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) runs an Internet for All program that pays for a year of a low-cost internet for eligible low-income households. However, education officials have not provided an update on program participation and satisfaction rates since last fall, and some families have reported that the internet offered through these plans is unstable and often too slow for the demands of online learning. The budget should ensure that OCTO can adequately increase low- and moderate-income families’ access to high-speed internet at home. The budget should also ensure that OCTO, DCPS, and public charter LEAs can provide appropriate digital literacy supports to students, their families, and educators.

More School-Based Mental Health Resources Are Essential for a Just Recovery

The pandemic has led to an uptick in behavioral health challenges among children. Low-income children and children of color have been especially vulnerable to the stress and trauma of the health and economic damages of the pandemic as their families shoulder disproportionate rates of job loss and COVID-19 cases and deaths. To address the major mental health crisis among DC’s children, the budget should add at least $6.4 million to fund the expansion of the city’s school-based mental health program to the remaining 80 DCPS and public charter schools not yet participating in the program. This addition could also help bring more resources to students’ family members and school staff as many providers have been offering extra support in recognition that many of the adults who care for students are facing increased mental health challenges, too.

Reimagine School Security and Student Safety

Many of DC’s public schools have more security guards and police positions per student than they do mental health and other student-support focused professionals. After a devastating year of loss, isolation, and disruption, being over-surveilled and overpoliced at school is the last thing students will need as more students return to in-person learning. The budget should acknowledge this reality and give schools the flexibility to rethink how they do school safety.

In the FY 2021 budget process, the DC Council demonstrated their commitment to helping schools reimagine security and student safety by voting to transfer the oversight of DCPS’ security contract from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) back to the school system. Education officials should continue building on this commitment in the FY 2022 budget by allowing Local School Advisory Teams to determine how they want to reallocate the $24 million from the security guard contract to resources such as social workers or Roving Leaders who help prevent and intervene in youth violence. Policymakers should also eliminate the School Safety Division within MPD—this would remove nearly 100 police officers from public schools and provide an estimated $13 million for schools to reimagine security and safety.

Out-of-School Time Programs Still Matter During the Pandemic

Even during the pandemic, out-of-school time (OST) programs have continued to play an important role in the academic and social-emotional support of students. Many OST providers have been connecting with students virtually and have expanded their reach by providing wrap around support to vulnerable families—such as delivering food and providing information about vital free or low-cost public resources. The FY 2022 budget should hold funding harmless for OST programs.  This would allow OST providers to continue offering safe virtual spaces for youth to connect with friends and caring adult mentors and be prepared to transition to in-person programming as it becomes safer to do so.