Every student deserves access to a quality and well-resourced neighborhood school. But steep enrollment declines, inadequate budgeting practices and policies, and unnecessary school growth have undermined DC Public Schools’ (DCPS) ability to ensure Black and brown students furthest from opportunity get the high-quality education they need and deserve.
Policymakers have taken steps to stabilize school budgets, but more action is needed to advance educational equity. One key step is for lawmakers to stabilize enrollment by adequately and equitably supporting existing neighborhood schools—especially those in historically divested areas—instead of opening new schools. Neighborhood schools are critical institutions that do more than teach students. Not only do they have an obligation to serve all students living within their school boundary, but they also often serve as community centers for students and families living within the area. Yet, particularly in Wards 5, 7, and 8, these important institutions are at risk.
DCPS school funding is directly tied to the number and characteristics of students enrolled. As a school loses students, the funding allocated to each student leaves and follows them to their newly assigned school. While net public school enrollment increased by 3 percent compared to last year, DCPS projects that most schools in Wards 7 and 8 will experience enrollment declines. Sharp year-to-year declines such as these undermine the very schools that already struggle most to meet the needs of their students. In a system of school choice, many families send their children to schools in other neighborhoods, reinforcing the instability. However, the children who remain at their in-boundary neighborhood schools also deserve a quality education and should have access to that at any school they attend, especially their neighborhood school.
The opening of new schools, particularly when it happens in the very communities where neighborhood schools are experiencing student population declines, exacerbates an already serious problem. DCPS and public charter Local Education Agencies opened 33 new schools over the last five school years while tens of thousands of seats remained unfilled. That means DC is building new schools even as some schools sit half empty—and it’s harming Black and brown students the most while squeezing DC’s education resources. Right now, DC legislators are ensuring that no school gets less than 95 percent of its previous year’s budget, but some of the schools struggling the most and dealing with enrollment declines will see cuts. For example, the majority of schools in Wards 7 and 8 are expected to experience budget cuts with schools such as Kramer Middle School, Bard High School, and Excel Academy expecting to lose nearly a quarter of their enrollments. Schools cannot improve if they continue losing students and consequently, funding.
A failure to holistically examine school budget instability will result in harmful consequences for neighborhood schools serving majority Black students and high percentages of students designated “at-risk” of academic failure. DCPS should pause on opening any new schools until enrollment in existing neighborhood schools is stabilized and articulate and advance an equitable vision for and commitment to neighborhood schools.
For more detailed analysis and recommendations, read DCFPI Senior Policy Analyst Qubilah Huddleston’s testimony at the Committee of the Whole Reconvened Public Oversight Hearing on Fiscal Year 2024 DCPS School Budgets, and State Policy Fellow Michael Johnson, Jr’s testimony at the Committee of the Whole Performance Oversight Hearing on the Education Cluster.