Testimony of Soumya Bhat at the Budget Oversight Hearing for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, April 30, 2015

Chairman Grosso and members of the Committee on Education, thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Soumya Bhat, and I am the Education Finance and Policy Analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI is a non-profit organization that promotes opportunity and widespread prosperity for all residents of the District of Columbia through thoughtful policy solutions.

Today, I’d like to focus my comments on funding for the following programs within the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE):

  • Statewide Longitudinal Education Data System (SLED): We are concerned that $1.3 million in federal funding for the SLED system is set to expire at the end of FY 2015, but no local funding was identified in the proposed FY 2016 budget to maintain the program.
  • Healthy Tots Nutrition Program for Young Children: We are concerned that funding for the new Healthy Tots program ($3 million) was eliminated in the mayor’s budget. This program was intended to improve the nutritional quality of meals and snacks at early education sites.
  • Community Schools Program: The Community Schools model uses the school setting as a community hub for social services and enriched learning opportunities for students and families. DCFPI supports the additional investment ($200,000) in the proposed budget to fund an additional grantee.

Expired Federal Funding for SLED Should Be Replaced

The Statewide Longitudinal Education Data System, commonly referred to as SLED, is OSSE’s tracking system for standardized data on enrollment and student demographics across the District’s education programs. This type of data system is important for researchers and policymakers who want to study the value of various education programs, including which work best for particular types of students — such as those identified as “at-risk,” and identify best practices to raise student achievement. Over the past year, the data division of OSSE has also taken steps to actively engage with the larger community to better understand their data needs.

Unfortunately, the $1.3 million in federal funding for the system is set to expire at the end of FY 2015, and no local funding was identified in the proposed FY 2016 budget to maintain the program. In agency oversight responses, OSSE has indicated a commitment to the continued operation of SLED including a reexamination of personnel resources to ensure the system has enough staff capacity. In addition to these efforts, we urge the Council to identify local funds to fully sustain the SLED budget in FY 2016.

Elimination of Healthy Tots Takes Away Opportunity to Improve Child Nutrition

About 14 percent of DC’s low-income preschoolers (children ages 2-4) are obese, which is a leading trigger for diabetes and other health issues.[1]One way to improve these outcomes is to ensure that infants have proper access to nutritious meals and age-appropriate play in early childhood facilities. 

The Healthy Tots program strengthens standards for nutrition and physical activity in DC’s early childhood centers and provides additional local reimbursement for participation in the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) — a program that reimburses childhood centers for serving nutritious meals. It also creates a financial incentive to centers that serve breakfasts and lunches made with locally sourced and unprocessed food. The program allows OSSE to provide grants that support increased age-appropriate physical activity, farm-to-preschool programs, and gardens. 

This voluntary, incentive-based approach could help more providers participate in CACFP and increase consumption of local and unprocessed food. Additional local reimbursement can help those centers already participating in CACFP enhance the nutritional value of their menus and can make CACFP more enticing for small providers who are not yet participating. Grants will also help cash-strapped providers make the necessary start-up investments needed to build a garden or farm-to-preschool program.  

However, as part of a strategy to address the city’s $200 million budget shortfall, the mayor eliminated $3 million that was to fund the new Healthy Tots program within OSSE’s budget. The mayor’s proposed budget cuts Healthy Tots funding starting in FY 2015, in addition to FY 2016. We urge the Council to consider ways to restore funding for this program.

Support for Expansion of Community Schools Model

Elementary and secondary schools can serve not only as a source of academic instruction, but also as community hubs that connect children and their families to other services that ultimately enhance academic goals. In the “Community Schools” model, schools and community-based organizations partner to deliver services identified as community priorities — physical and mental health care, afterschool programs, adult education, or early childhood supports. These integrated supports can lead to engaged families, stronger communities, and better academic outcomes.

DCFPI is highly supportive of the expansion of the Community Schools model.[2] Right now, six DC grantees[3]  have funding to develop a Community School, and the proposed budget includes $200,000 for an additional grantee. Long-term, the program should set clear goals and document the program’s impacts on students and families served. It should also be strategically expanded to schools with high levels of need — including those with large numbers of at-risk students — as part of our city’s strategy to close the student achievement gap.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer input. I am happy to answer any questions.

[1] Data from U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Environment Atlas, available at www.dchealthmatters.org

[2] For more information on Community Schools, see DCFPI’s issue brief here: https://www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Issue-Brief-7-Community-Schools-Final1.pdf