School funding in DC could become more equitable if the city were to implement the policy options laid out in a new study that the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) commissioned. The DME commissioned the study to explore ways to improve the adequacy and equity of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF)—the District’s main tool for allocating per-pupil funding to traditional and public charter schools in the District. The study assesses what it actually costs to provide a basic education to every DC public school student, what drives these costs, and whether the current design of the at-risk and English Learner (EL) funding supplements is targeted equitably.
Notably, the study found that:
- Students with certain at-risk factors and students with more than one at-risk factor face the widest learning gaps compared to students who aren’t at-risk and would likely benefit from additional targeted funding.
- Student achievement on math and English Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests is strongly related to the concentration of at-risk students within a school, warranting consideration of an at-risk weight that is based on the percentage of at-risk students in a school rather than on a per-pupil basis.
- Additional funding for EL students should vary based on factors such as age, proficiency level, or amount of time a student has received formal education. This is not how DC currently allocates EL funding.
- Increasing personnel costs, school size and facility utilization, student need, and facility finance and maintenance are the primary cost drivers of the base per-pupil amount that DC Public schools (DCPS) and public charters receive for each student they enroll.
At a time when the coronavirus health pandemic and economic shutdown are disproportionately harming low-income residents and Black, Latinx, and immigrant residents, it is even more critical that policymakers sufficiently and equitably fund public schools in the District. The 2020-21 UPSFF working group—made up of local education policy and school finance experts—will meet over the next four months to review the study’s findings and make recommendations to the DME on how to improve the funding formula. Importantly, the working group should emphasize that policymakers will need to adopt a revenue strategy to sufficiently fund and implement the options presented in the study.
Real Cost Drivers Should Drive Annual UPSFF Increases
DCPS and public charter local education agencies (LEAs) receive a “foundation level” or base per-pupil amount for each student they enroll to cover basic educational services, such as math and social studies teachers. For the upcoming 2020-21 school year, the foundation level is $11,310 for each student, a 3 percent increase from the previous year, not adjusting for inflation.
The formula also includes supplemental “weights” that are multiplied by the base amount to allocate additional funds to schools to provide targeted resources to vulnerable students, such as low-income students, EL or students with disabilities. Inclusive of all funding sources (base UPSFF + weights), LEAs included in the study spent $22,400 per pupil in FY 2019, with 75 percent going to personnel.
In comparing school-level per-pupil spending, factors such as school size, student need, and facility utilization rates (total enrollment for all grades located in the building divided by the building capacity) have a direct impact on how much LEAs spend per pupil. Regardless of the program offered, smaller schools, schools serving a higher-needs population, and schools with lower facility utilization rates tend to spend more on a per-pupil basis. Generally, school programs with lower per-pupil spending rates serve a lower proportion of at-risk students and perform better on PARCC exams.
In order to address the cost pressures LEAs experience, policymakers should address how the formula and supplemental weights are increased in response to cost pressures. At minimum, the Mayor and DC Council should increase the UPSFF annually in response to a cost of living adjustment and collective bargaining agreements, as DCFPI has called for. Otherwise, schools will not be able to keep up with rising costs.
Current Formula Weights Likely Inadequate to Meet Students’ Needs
The District funds each at-risk student at the same level, regardless of the type or number of at-risk factors a student may have. In the 2020-21 school year, DCPS and public charter schools will receive $2,551 per at-risk student. DC considers a student at-risk if they are living in a low-income family, in foster care, experiencing homelessness, or over-age for their grade in high school. The majority of students considered at-risk are Black and brown, reflecting the enduring legacy of racism, housing discrimination, and economic exploitation and exclusion in DC.
Despite equal funding for each at-risk student, the new study suggests that students with certain types of risk factors need more targeted funding to overcome the barriers they face to academic success. Students who are in the foster care system or over-age in high school face the widest learning gaps compared to their peers with other risk factors. In addition, the study shows that students with multiple risk factors are least likely to be college- and career-ready compared to their peers with only one risk factor.
The percentage of at-risk students is strongly linked to school student achievement, according to the study. Students attending schools that serve higher percentages of at-risk students attain lower PARCC test scores, while students attending schools with lower percentages of at-risk students tend to score higher.
Of the possible funding options to better target additional dollars to at-risk students facing the larger barriers to educational success, increasing the weight for high school at-risk students and increasing the weight for students with two or more risk factors were most strongly supported by an advisory group of local education policy stakeholders consulted during the study. These two options would be among the costliest given the large number of students who would be eligible for a funding boost.
Similarly, the District does not differentiate funding levels for English Learner (EL) students based on their needs. In the new school year, DCPS and public charters will receive $5,541 per EL student.
The study primarily explored whether the EL weight should be tiered to reflect the costs of meeting differing EL student needs, based on factors such as age, proficiency level, or amount of time a student has received formal education. For example, a high school student who is new to the country and has limited or informal education likely requires more support than an EL student in pre-Kindergarten.
The study assessed three main tiered options to improve funding for EL students: additional funding for EL students in grades with the largest learning gaps, additional funding for students who score the lowest on the English proficiency exam, or additional funding for students designated as “new to country” or students with limited or interrupted formal education.
Student outcome data from the last three years shows marked improvements for elementary school EL students, but also increasing gaps for middle and high school students. Tiered funding has already been undertaken by some states and urban school districts. The advisory group favored tiering funding for PK-5 and 6-12 students, as well as proficiency tiering as new funds become available.
Policymakers Should Raise Revenue to Advance Educational Equity
As DME Paul Kihn said, “The UPSFF is our single best tool for achieving funding equity for young people in the District of Columbia.” The study’s key findings make clear that policymakers have options to improve the funding formula so all students have the resources they need to succeed. Policymakers could redistribute current funding or provide additional funding as it becomes available over time to pay for the changes to the at-risk and EL funding weights, according to the study. Waiting for additional funding to become available over time is not a strategy for educational equity. Policymakers will need to raise revenue to direct necessary resources to low-income students and students of color whom the District’s policies and budgeting practices have long shortchanged.