Testimony of Qubilah Huddleston at the Performance Oversight Hearing for the DC Government Education Agencies DC Council Committee of the Whole

Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is Qubilah Huddleston and I am a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI). DCFPI is a nonprofit organization that promotes budget choices to address DC’s racial and economic inequities through independent research and policy recommendations.

I am here today to highlight the efforts that District early and public education leaders have made over the last year to better meet the needs of infants and toddlers as well as students who are considered at-risk of academic failure. Specifically, my testimony focuses on:

  • The importance of early care and education for a strong, effective, and connected early childhood system in the District;
  • The 2020 Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF) Study commissioned by the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME);
  • The recommendations from the 2020-21 UPSFF Working Group; and,
  • The need to improve DC’s at-risk funding system.

OSSE Plays a Vital Role in Helping Stabilize the Early Childhood Education Sector

Child care is an essential part of our economy and foundational for our workforce, preparing children for the future and enabling parents and caregivers to work, all while employing a large workforce comprised of mostly Black and brown women. However, access to affordable, good quality childcare was a deep challenge before the pandemic due to years of underinvestment. One year into the public health crisis and deep recession, we’re seeing the precarious early childhood education sector pushed to the brink, with one-third of DC child care providers closed and many more at risk of going out of business due to lower enrollment and the high cost of complying with public health regulations.

The sector is struggling to survive—and its survival is an essential element of racial, gender, and economic justice. If lawmakers fail to do everything possible to save our early education system, they will exacerbate racial and economic disparities for years to come, and it will be women of color who will pay the price. The District must invest in the early childhood education sector to ensure that, when we come out on the other side of the pandemic and recession, all families who need it are able to find high-quality affordable child care and the essential contribution of child care workers is valued. This requires large, immediate investments to stabilize the sector and robust long-term investments to fund the Birth-to-Three law.

DCFPI applauds OSSE for taking quick action early in the pandemic to provide stability to child care providers participating in the subsidy program by continuing reimbursement payments based on typical enrollment between April and October 2020. This policy allowed families and providers flexibility to make the best decisions for themselves and their health, at a time when the cost of providing safe education and care in a pandemic rose significantly. And then, in the fall of 2020, OSSE announced a change from enrollment-based payments to attendance-based, causing instability.[1]OSSE’s later decision to boost the reimbursement rate per child by 32 percent—albeit based on attendance—was helpful, but, again, not enough as attendance remained low and costs high. DCFPI encourages OSSE to continue emergency reimbursement rates based on enrollment through FY 2021. In cases where the current enrollment numbers are larger than the pre-pandemic enrollment, OSSE should use the larger enrollment number.

To stabilize the child care sector, OSSE must also provide supports to DC’s child care programs who rely in whole or in part on private tuition and are struggling to stay open.[2] Many of these providers also experienced sudden and prolonged declines in tuition income, but the District has provided them few supports that can help them weather the financial crisis. For many mixed-model child care providers who rely on a combination of subsidy and tuition payments, stabilizing only part of a facility’s budget (i.e. subsidy) and one-time grants has not been enough. If mixed-model providers permanently close because they lack sufficient funds to continue paying staff or rent, their subsidized slots disappear too, limiting educational opportunities for some of the District’s lowest income families. Fewer child care programs after the pandemic will also have implications for parents’ ability to find culturally competent care[3] and fully return to work.

The District is poised to receive $81.4 million in federal pandemic aid for child care.[4] DCFPI recommends OSSE to allocate those funds immediately to (1) raise and continue the emergency rate for reimbursements through FY 2021, (2) base the emergency rate on enrollment rather than attendance for the rest of FY 2021,[5]  and (3) create low-barrier grants to help mixed-model and private tuition providers cover lost tuition, higher staffing costs, cleaning and PPE costs, etc., allowing the grants to cover retroactive expenses. This strategy will help DC avoid permanent loss of significant portions of our child care sector, which is one way we can measure how well the District responded and managed this crisis.

Long-term, to strengthen the stability of a sector that builds the brains of our youngest residents and allows working parents to work, the District should make progress towards fully funding the Birth-to-Three law, which is the road map for a better, more resilient early education system. As a start, DCFPI is calling on lawmakers to allocate an additional $60 million in local dollars to early childhood education in Fiscal Year (FY) 2022. It’s important that these funds be recurring to propel equity and respect into the pay we provide early learning professionals who shape the minds of our infants and toddlers and ultimately, our city’s future.

The 2020 UPSFF Study Underscores Urgent Need to Better Support Students Being Left Behind

DCFPI greatly appreciates the Mayor for funding the 2020 UPSFF Study in the FY 2020 approved budget.Policymakers and the public can use the study—which the DME released last summer—to develop a deeper understanding of the successes of the city’s student funding formula, which is essential for advancing educational equity, and opportunities to improve it. The study researched four key questions that looked at the (in)adequacy of the at-risk and English Learner (EL) weights and cost drivers of the per-pupil base. Of particular interest to DCFPI are the study’s findings that:

  • Learning gaps between students who are considered at-risk and students who are not have widened;
  • Students who have certain at-risk characteristics (i.e., overage in high school or in foster care) face the largest learning gaps compared to students who are not at-risk;
  • Students with multiple at-risk factors tend to have larger learning gaps compared to students with fewer or no at-risk factors; and,
  • Student achievement on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests is strongly associated with the concentration of at-risk students within a school.

These findings, coupled with the 2018-19 PARCC results that show Black and Latinx students—who are more likely to be identified as at-risk—tend to be less prepared for life beyond the PreK3-12 system compared to their white peers, demand a greater sense of urgency from policymakers and education officials. DCFPI applauds the Mayor and DC Council for their continuous investments in public education, yet large and unacceptable disparities in student learning outcomes show there is still more work to be done. More adequate and equitable funding, meaningful and regular community engagement, and actionable cross-sector collaboration are all needed to ensure that every DC student has what they need to realize their full potential and thrive in life.

The 2020-21 UPSFF Working Group Calls for Deeper Investments in At-Risk, But Immediate Action and Future Research Is Needed

DCFPI had the privilege of being part of the 2020-21 UPSFF Working Group—a diverse group of education finance and policy experts who are tasked with analyzing real education costs in DC and providing recommendations based on financial data, leading educational research, and public opinion. We made our recommendations based on the DME’s 2020 UPSFF Study. Today, I will focus on our recommendation on at-risk funding.

The Working Group recommended that the District create an additional supplemental weight to provide extra dollars to students with two or more at-risk characteristics. The DME’s study showed that students with multiple at-risk characteristics face the widest learning gaps compared to students with fewer or no at-risk characteristics. If the District were to adopt this recommendation, nearly 5,700 students would be eligible for this additional funding, based on FY 2019 data.[7] Unfortunately, we did not spend sufficient time determining what the new weight should be. In the short term, DCFPI strongly encourages the DME to identify a new weight on an emergency basis to address the immediate, pandemic learning needs of students who have two or more at-risk characteristics. In the medium term, we encourage the DME to continue its research to identify a permanent new weight that can be implemented by FY 2023.

DC’s At-Risk Funding System Needs Improvement

The pandemic has put DC’s longstanding educational inequities on full display, and the moment we are in compels bold action from policymakers to remedy the persistent, documented issues with the administration of at-risk funding in the city. The research is clear that more money matters for improving academic outcomes, but how the District invests that money is just as important.[8]

While DCFPI supports the adoption and funding of an additional at-risk weight, we know that creating and funding a new weight will only get us halfway there. DC Public Schools (DCPS) misused about half of its at-risk funding to pay for general education services in recent years, according to a 2019 report from the DC Auditor.[9] This practice is harming schools with the highest percentages of at-risk students the most. In the public charter sector, public charter local education agencies (LEAs) do not face the same legal requirement to “supplement, not supplant” school budgets with at-risk dollars. The Public Charter School Board regularly produces an at-risk spending report, however, the reports from individual LEAs are not standardized. And finally, despite investing nearly half a billion dollars in at-risk funding, there is no consistent or measurable strategy for using at-risk dollars to improve academic achievement. With all of these challenges, can we really say that at-risk funding is being implemented in a way that truly advances educational equity?

DCFPI encourages the Mayor and DC Council to consider the following options to improve the city’s at-risk funding system:

  • Adequately fund the public education budget so that LEAs are not forced to rely on at-risk dollars to make school budgets whole.
  • Amend the School Financial Transparency Amendment Act of 2020 to require the DME to establish a financial reporting model that calculates whether LEAs are using at-risk funding to enhance or supplant school budgets. The amended law should also require all LEA budget offices to include the findings in their financial reports and make these reports available to the public.
  • Require DCPS and public charter LEAs to list at-risk expenditures separately in school budget documents to improve transparency.
  • Require OSSE to work with DCPS and public charter LEAs to develop a robust data system that tracks and measures the effectiveness of evidence-based interventions and promising practices. These reports should be published publicly.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify and I am happy to answer any questions.

[1] DC Action for Children, “The Status of DC Child Care During Covid19,” November 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cultural competence is defined as the ability of providers and organizations to effectively deliver services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of families.

[4] DC already received $16.7 million in CCDBG funding for subsidized care from the COVID relief bill that Congress approved in December 2020; and DC is poised to receive an additional $24.9 million for subsidy funding and $39.8 million for stabilization under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 that Biden is expected to sign into law later this month.

[5] In cases where the current enrollment numbers are larger than the pre-pandemic enrollment, the larger enrollment number should be used.

[6] Afton Partners, LLC, “2020 Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF) Study,” June 2020.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Qubilah Huddleston, “Money Matters: Adequate and Targeted Education Funding Can Boost Student Outcomes, Reduce Opportunity Gaps,” DC Fiscal Policy Institute, February 26, 2020.

[9] Erin Roth and Will Perkins, “D.C. Schools Shortchange At-Risk Students,” Office of the DC Auditor, June 26, 2019.