Low-Income DCPS Schools Are Shortchanged When It Comes to Supplemental Resources for “At-Risk” Students

DC Public Schools (DCPS) is receiving millions this year to meet the needs of 25,000 low-income and other “at-risk” students, yet nearly half of that money is being used to support things that all schools are supposed to have. DCPS, Mayor Bowser, and the DC Council should work together to ensure that next year, all at-risk funds are used to supplement core school functions. That’s the subject of DCFPI’s testimony on Thursday before the DC Council Education Committee.

At-risk funds were added as part of the school funding formula in school year 2014-15, and are now allowing many schools to expand important services that support students and improve academic outcomes, including extending the school year and adding staff. But the funds are not helping as much as possible. That’s because 47 percent of DCPSs at-risk resources were allocated to items that all schools are entitled to have under the school system’s staffing model, according to an analysis by Mary Levy. For example, all high schools are supposed to get an attendance counselor, yet in some schools, the attendance counselor is being supported using at-risk funds.

This means that only half of the at-risk funds are supporting enhanced services to meet the needs of at-risk students, such as literacy initiatives.

The process should be improved next year:

  • Ensure at-risk funding supplements core functions at DCPS. DCPS should design its budget process so that at-risk funds can only add to what schools get in base funding and positions. This means clearly defining the core staffing formula that will apply to all schools and creating a firewall so that at-risk funds can be used only for staffing or services beyond those core services.
  • DCPS school leaders should have clear guidance and flexibility over the use of at-risk funds. School leaders, with input from Local School Advisory Teams, should be given flexibility to decide how to best use at-risk funds. This requires giving school leaders guidance on the opportunity provided by at-risk funds and enough time to decide how to use the additional resources in meaningful ways for their students.
  • DCPS should be subject to greater budget transparency. Budget documents for individual schools should clearly identify what is funded under DCPS’s comprehensive staffing model, and what supplementary services are supported with at-risk funds.

This does not mean that such funds must be used only for things that feel like extras – such as field trips – or that at-risk funds must be used only for a given school’s low-income students. DCFPI supports using at-risk funds for school-wide activities, particularly in high-poverty schools, and for activities that enhance a school’s basic functions. At-risk funds could be used, for example, to hire additional staff to support literacy initiatives, before- or after-school programming, or additional social workers.

The findings around use of at-risk funds suggest that the school funding formula may not be enough to meet the basic educational needs of all DCPS students. As the District’s leaders work to make sure at-risk funds are being used to add services for low-income students, they also should assess whether the core funding for all schools provides an adequate base.