From Principals to Pencils: How DC School Budget Is Set and How You Can Get Involved

As a community, we’ll invest $1.7 billion in public education this school year for DCPS and public charter schools. That’s as much as our local spending on housing, health care, and police combined. In some ways, it’s not really surprising that education comes out so clearly on top, given how important education is to a child’s opportunity to succeed—and to our community’s long-term economic health.

Yet DC parents across the city know that school funding is still not enough. Many DC schools have too few counselors, teacher’s aides, extracurricular opportunities, or even working computers. One notable sign of the shortfall: parents in DC’s wealthiest communities raise substantial amounts to fund staff and other basic functions. But of course the solution shouldn’t be to rely on parents—with inequitable results across the District—but to have a more adequate schools budget for all students.

How can you, as a parent or other concerned resident, do something about it? Read on! You’ll find out how the total DC school budget gets set, how DCPS and public charter schools allocate their money to campuses and various functions, how transparent those decisions are, and how parents can get involved. (This review covers how school operating costs are set, but not the funding process for school building modernization.)

The School Funding Starting Point

The total budget for each school is tied to how many students they have, and how many students have special education needs.

The fancy term used in DC is the Uniform Per Student Funding formula—UPSFF. Each year, the city sets a base amount for the UPSFF; it’s $10,658 for this school year. That number gets adjusted up for some grades, including a higher number for very young children to reflect smaller class sizes. There also are add-ons for students in special education, English language learners, and for students considered “at risk” of academic failure—those who are in low-income families, in foster care, homeless, or over-aged for their grade. For example, the school budgets include $5,222 for every English Language Learner and $2,387 for every at-risk student.

Together, this formula generated $860 million for DCPS and $890 million for all public charter schools in the 2018-19 school year.

How DCPS and Public Charter Schools Allocate Money to Schools

While the UPSFF is used to set the total budget for DCPS and each charter school, both sectors then have a lot of flexibility over what to do with it.

In DCPS, the process currently works like this:

  • Step 1: DCPS decides how much to set aside for central office functions, school supports (like food services), and directly to schools themselves.
  • Step 2: DCPS allocates resources to individual schools, governed by a School Budget Development Guide, including a “comprehensive staffing model” that dictates how many teachers, counselors, custodians, each school gets based on its student population. For example, schools with 22 or more English Language Learners get a full-time ELL teacher, and every elementary school gets a music, art, and physical education teacher. Most school positions are required, but some are “flexible,” and local school communities can allocate them as they want.
  • Step 3: Local School Advisory Teams (LSATs), comprising staff and parents at each school, make budget recommendations to the school leadership, especially over flexible positions.

There is one exception: funds for “at-risk” DCPS students are required to be allocated separately, with money flowing to the schools where students are enrolled, to ensure that these resources actually go to help at-risk students. (As discussed below, DCPS is diverting a large share of at-risk funds.)

In public charter schools, there is no uniform process. Each charter school has complete autonomy over how to spend the resources they get through the UPSFF, though they are required to adequately meet the needs of special education students and English Language Learners. It also is up to each charter school to create their own process for setting the school budget and for how they want to engage parents.

How Transparent Are School Budgets in DC?

As noted, DCPS publishes a guide to their budget process. They also publish fact sheets that highlight budget allocations school by school. Together, these create a reasonable amount of transparency about the resources that each school receives, though they may not explain the decisions that lead some schools to get more resources than others. In other words, the school budgets are a good starting point for parents wanting to get involved in budget advocacy, but just a start. They may raise more questions than they answer.

The DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB) gathers financial information on each charter school, including its budget, audited finances and tax return. PCSB also conducts a Financial Analysis Review (FAR Report) of the charter sector. As with DCPS, the information is useful but not perfect. The budgets it shares, for example, are for last year. The budgets list special education teachers, but don’t break out English as a Second Language teachers, social workers, or guidance counselors.

Both DCPS and PCSB report annually on how schools spend their “at-risk” funds.

Current DC School Budget Issues

There are a number of ways in which funding for schools is not keeping up with needs, and where the budget process falls short of full inclusion.

  • Failure to Keep Up with Rising Costs: School costs rise from year to year, primarily due to staff salary costs, but also as energy, maintenance, and technology costs grow. Yet DC has no standard for increasing the school budget to keep up with these. For much of the past decade, funding grew slower than inflation and forced schools to make cuts. We could improve school stability by setting a rule to increase the formula each year to match inflation.
  • Failure to Support Students with Added Needs: The UPSFF add-on for English Language Learners is about 20 percent below where it should be, according to a 2013 “Adequacy Study,” and funding to support at-risk students is over one-third below the level considered appropriate.
  • Diverting At-Risk Funds: In recent years, DCPS has diverted about half of its at-risk funds to general education functions, rather than to provide enhanced services at high-poverty schools. That’s denying students the opportunities they need to succeed.
  • Limited Parental Input in DCPS: While every school has an LSAT (a group of parents and school staff) to make budget recommendations, the information given to LSATs is often confusing, the time to review the budget is short, and principals can overrule them. This comes from personal experience as an LSAT member at several schools. (The budget engagement process at charter schools is less clear, because each school can do whatever it wants to engage parents on the budget, including nothing.)

How You Can Get Involved in the DC Budget Process

It may still be the middle of this school year, but now’s the time to start advocating for next year’s school budget. Policymakers and school leaders need to hear from you! Here’s some ways to do that.

  • Mayor Bowser Budget Engagement Forums: This February, Mayor Bowser will host three events throughout the city to get resident input on the budget. Influencing her budget is a key to success.
  • DC Council Performance Oversight Hearings: The Council holds hearings throughout February and March on every DC government agency, including DCPS and PCSB. Look at dccouncil.us for the calendar.
  • Your School’s Local School Advisory Team: In DC public schools, LSATs meet every month, and the budget is often a topic at this point in the calendar year.

If you care about your DC school—or all DC schools—getting the resources they need, you can only make a difference if you let your voice be heard.


Ed Lazere is the Executive Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org). DCFPI promotes budget and policy solutions to reduce poverty and inequality in the District of Columbia and increase opportunities for residents to build a better future.

See the original post in Hill Rag. 

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