Testimony of Soumya Bhat, At the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Hearing for District of Columbia Public Schools

Chancellor Henderson, 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.

I am here today to ask DC Public Schools (DCPS) to continue to strengthen its effort to improve the transparency of public education funding in the District of Columbia, including the strategic use of new resources for students considered “at-risk” of academic failure.

It’s an exciting time for education funding in the District. We’ve been a city of revenue surpluses for the past few years, and this has enabled us to invest in important areas of the budget. The DC school funding formula was recently examined and adjusted after several years to better reflect what our students need. Many of the student categories saw increases within the funding formula, including special education, English language learners, and an entirely new category for low-income DC students considered “at-risk.” This means that poverty is being considered in the way we allocate our educational resources, to the tune of $2,000 more per child and an $80 million investment.

There is research showing that increased school spending is linked to better outcomes for low-income students. The National Bureau of Economic Research published a study this year that shows low-income children exposed to a 20 percent increase in spending for their school careers saw a number of positive outcomes, including higher graduation rates, being more likely to pursue some post-secondary education, higher wages and family incomes, making them less likely to fall into poverty in adulthood.

We also know that it’s not just about spending in the classroom, but also about delivering key non-instructional services to meet our students’ mental health needs, provide quality afterschool and summer programming, and to provide enough supports for our homeless students. A recent series of reports from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute shows that DCPS is taking a number of steps to meet the unique needs of low-income students, but that large gaps remain.

This additional funding represents a tremendous opportunity for DCPS schools. These additional resources are intended to help low-income students receive the extra support they need, but it also raises questions about how these dollars should be spent and how we can tie these resources to effective programs for DC children.

Since this was the first year of implementation for the new at-risk funding weight, there were naturally some hiccups in the process. For example, according to the Fair Student Funding legislation, at-risk funding is supposed to follow the child to every DCPS school and school leaders are to have flexibility in how they use these resources. But, due to time constraints in the budgeting process, this was not possible in this first year. Instead, the funding went to a number of DCPS initiatives that were already planned — such as middle school supports and grants to reward student satisfaction — that are important, but were not necessarily targeted to improving outcomes specifically for at-risk students.

DCFPI is hopeful that DCPS will be able to use at-risk resources in strategic ways next school year — especially if the size of the at-risk weight is increased — to make targeted and proven investments in high-poverty schools.

A second issue, one that we have testified about before, is that the budget timeline for schools is far too short for these types of important funding decisions. We recommend asking the Mayor to extend the budget timeline, by setting the appropriation for DCPS before the city’s February revenue forecast. While this creates some risks, because it will not be clear at that time how much revenue the city will have to meet its various needs, education certainly will be a top priority each year. Setting a reasonable education funding level in January will give the additional time needed to make better budget allocation decisions.

Finally, we recommend that DCPS establish a budget allocation task force that would provide a mechanism to incorporate expert and stakeholder advice into local school budgets. One thing we learned from watching the student reassignment committee in action is the value of getting the right people into a room to discuss priorities. A budget allocation task force, comprised of local school and central office leaders, parent representatives and community groups, could start identifying issues and policies affecting school budgets as early as September, draft budget recommendations to be vetted with the larger community in December, and approved by the Chancellor in January.

Thank you again for the opportunity to offer input on the FY 2016 DCPS budget. I am happy to answer any questions.