Testimony of Soumya Bhat at the FY 2016 Budget Oversight Hearing for District of Columbia Public Schools, April 23, 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 the distribution of at-risk funds, the need for consistent funding policies within DC Public Schools (DCPS), and concerns over afterschool programming in the fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget.

Distribution of “At-Risk” Funds

Last year, DCFPI testified on the need for greater transparency in how the at-risk funds would be used and that this money be distributed more equitably to schools with the biggest concentrations of need. We applaud the Council’s leadership in passing emergency legislation enforcing the Fair Student Funding law as well as the Chancellor’s commitment to ensuring that at-risk resources will be allocated proportionally to schools in FY 2016. This is especially important given that DCPS’ at-risk student population will increase by 11 percent next year to a total of 24,000 students.

The mayor’s proposed budget did not make any changes to the school funding formula. There is no adjustment for inflation or any changes to selected items within the formula, such as the at-risk weight. Despite this, DCPS directed more of its dollars to schools, mostly due to reductions to central operations. However, the scope and impact of these central office cuts are not yet fully understood and DCFPI would like more clarity on this during oversight.

The emergency legislation passed by the Council also allowed the DCPS Chancellor to have more control over how the at-risk funding is used. For FY 2016, DCPS gave each school a menu of choices of how to use their at-risk dollars. A review of initial school budget allocations shows that much of the funding will go towards extending the school day, for arts programming and supplies, and for middle and high school staffing. (See Figures at end of testimony for a breakdown of funds by use and Ward.)

 As DCPS enters its first school year of properly allocating at-risk funding to schools based on their at-risk populations — that is, using the at-risk weight to supplement resources to high-poverty schools — DCFPI believes it is important to ensure the funds are used to supplement rather than supplant school resources. These funds are intended to help schools address the extra challenges that low-income students face. Yet the FY 2016 school budgets indicate that some of these resources are being used to support basic teaching staff in middle and high schools, as well as staffing for special education students and English Language Learners (ELL). While these are important positions that should be adequately funded for schools, ELL and Special Education already have dedicated funding sources in the formula, and basic teaching staff should be adequately funded with general education funding in each school’s budget. If schools are using at-risk funds for these purposes, it appears to be a sign that funding for special education, English Language Learners and basic instruction is inadequate.

Consistent Funding Policies for Budget Allocations

It is important that budget allocations from DCPS to individual schools are governed by consistent policies from year-to-year. Schools and parents need to know whether or not certain funding will be available so that they can plan effectively, and they should be able to see that their school has been funded fairly. This requires consistent, transparent criteria and uniform application for funding policies, such as the Per Pupil Funding Minimum and specialty funding if they are used.

Yet currently, some DCPS schools receive additional funding while others do not, and these decisions are made at the discretion of DCPS. For example, if a school’s total funding falls below a certain per-student floor — $9,000 for 2015-16 school year — the DCPS budget guideline indicates that its budget should be increased to meet the minimum. In the 2014-15 school year, Wilson High School was given about $3 million in supplemental funding due to this policy. However, in the 2015-16 school year, the per-pupil funding minimum is not guaranteed or uniformly applied. Wilson HS, though seemingly eligible for support from the per-pupil minimum, did not receive any such funds from DCPS for 2015-16.

Reductions to Afterschool Programs  

We have significant concerns regarding the allocation of afterschool funding in the FY 2016 DCPS budget.  The budget proposes an expansion of the “extended school day” program, a strategy that it has piloted in recent years, but reduced support for afterschool programming. According to DCPS’ oversight responses, at least 20 schools will be losing their afterschool funds in FY 2016.

Afterschool, or expanded learning, programs are different from extended school day. These programs involve community-based organizations that kinds of enrichment that schools often do not provide in the regular school day — even an extended school day — and support working parents by offering services as late as 6:00 p.m..

Afterschool programming staff in the DCPS central office will be cut by over 20 positions. These reductions could impact afterschool programs, because many schools rely on central office staff to coordinate the partnerships between schools and community-based providers to offer recreational and academic programs outside of the school day.

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