Doing the Math of DC Schools Funding: A Look at the Public Education Finance Reform Commission and Its Recommendations

Don’t Forget to Attend “What’s In Store”’a preview discussion of the District’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget. It’s less than a month before the mayor presents his plan! Join us Wednesday afternoon as DCFPI teams up with Fair Budget Coalition and Think Twice Before You Slice to present several informed perspectives. Speakers include:

  • Eric Goulet, Budget Director, Mayor’s Office of Budget and Finance
  • Fitzroy Lee, Chief Economist, Office of the Chief Financial Officer 
  • Jennifer Budoff, Budget Director, Council of the District of Columbia

The forum will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 29, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at DCFPI, 820 First Street NE on the 4th Floor (near Union Station Metro).  An R.S.V.P. is requested, so please email or call Tina Marshall, or 202-325-8786.


What is the most equitable way to fund DC public and public charter schools? Are we spending too much? Too little? How can we make the schools budget more readable and accessible to parents, teachers and community members? These are some of the tough questions that were tackled by the District of Columbia Public Education Finance Reform Commission, which released its recommendations report to Mayor Gray and DC Council earlier this month. 

The independent Commission was established under 2010 legislation, in large part as a response to concerns from public charter school supporters who felt they were not being funded fairly when compared with DC Public Schools. The 15-member commission, chaired by DCFPI’s Ed Lazere, was charged with examining this issue of “equity” of school funding, but also to examine broader issues, including the “adequacy,” “affordability,” and “transparency” of DC’s education finance.  The Commission had just a few months to operate and address a wide range of complex issues in order to inform the 2013 budget. So, what exactly did the Commission cover? 

Are all DC Schools Being Funded on a Uniform Basis? Local education funding is distributed to both DCPS and each charter school through a formula called the “Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.”  The UPSFF is supposed to fund programs and services for both types of schools on a uniform basis. 

Public charter school advocates said they have been at a disadvantage, because DCPS has received funding beyond the formula for building maintenance and because DCPS has benefited from mid-year funding bumps that charter schools did not receive. Yet several commissioners noted that DCPS has a different set of responsibilities that affects its funding needs. DCPS must provide a school of right to any school-age child in DC at any time of year, no matter their educational needs, while charter schools are not required to take new students after October 5 each year. Also, DCPS is responsible for a large amount of space, managing many buildings that are old and built for a larger student body. 

Ultimately, the Commission recommended that facilities maintenance funds be recalculated based on actual cost factors to schools, such as industry standard rates, building age, and amount of building space. At the same time, the Commission encouraged the city to create incentives for more efficient use of school space, including co-location of DCPS schools and public charter schools in the same building. 

The Commission expressed concerns over mid-year supplements to the DCPS budget. Ultimately, though, commissioners did not reach consensus that a situation leading to additional funding needs for DCPS necessarily should also translate into a proportional funding increase for public charter schools. 

Are we spending enough? Perhaps surprisingly, the Commission’s report found that DC spends less per student than neighboring school systems in Arlington County and Alexandria, and is comparable to spending in Baltimore. 

Due to limited time, the Commission was not able to analyze the full costs of an adequate education in DC before the report deadline, but it recommended that a full-scale adequacy study be completed to address this question. The outcomes could lead to revisions to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, which has not been updated since 2008. The process may take up to a year, so any findings that come out may not go into effect until FY 2014. 

In particular, Commissioners noted that DC’s current funding formula does not target any local resources to low-income students. It recommended the study look into a provision of additional funding to schools based on the number of students who are both low-income students and academically behind. 

Helping Charter Schools Find Adequate Buildings: Public charter school supporters are concerned with the way they receive funds to support acquisition or modernization of facilities. Each charter school receives $3,000 per student per year for these costs, but the level has been a bit unstable, making it hard to secure mortgage or construction loans. The charter school advocates also argued that $3,000 per student simply was not enough, especially for new schools trying to obtain adequate facilities. 

However, facilities funding was not part of the Commission’s initial charge, and there was not enough time to explore this matter in addition to the stated goals of the Commission. This important issue undoubtedly will come up again in the future.   

While not everyone got everything they wanted out of the Public Education Finance Reform Commission, the report examines several key issues related to fiscal equity and uniformity for all of DC’s publicly funded schools. It can serve as a springboard for DC’s policymakers to re-engage the public in these critical decisions affecting our schools. While the Commission’s recommendations now sit with the Mayor, it is important for the larger community to take notice of this report and weigh in on these recommendations for FY 2013 and future budget cycles.