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Opinion

Examiner Editorial: Will the mayor step up for charter school children?

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Mayor Vincent Gray's budget office is preparing the administration's proposed fiscal year 2014 budget, which the mayor will send to the District of Columbia Council in late March. The budget will fund both the traditional public school system and public charter schools, which are run independently of the school system and educate 43 percent of District students enrolled in public schools.

Past years' budgets have shortchanged the charter schools, providing more dollars for each DC Public Schools student than for each charter school student. Will the mayor's 2014 proposal break with this tradition, which violates the law and principles of fairness? There are some hopeful signs.

The mayor recently announced he would end the practice of using an unreliable revenue stream -- federal school improvement funds -- to supplement the city's contribution to the charter school facilities allowance. Gray also promised that the allowance, which lets charter schools provide space to their students, would not drop below $3,000 per student annually. Although this figure permits charters to provide their students with only about half of the space DCPS provides for its students, these are significant moves for which the mayor deserves credit.

But still more needs to be done to eliminate funding inequities. The mayor also should end the practice of providing supplemental budget appropriations to DCPS -- $25 million this past year -- to cover its regular overspending, while providing no additional funding to the charter schools, which must live within their budgets. This has been common to all D.C. mayors since the first charters opened their doors in 1996, but it violates the District's uniform per-student funding requirement and encourages DCPS profligacy. An end to this practice would be a significant step toward fulfilling the mayor's campaign promise.

The mayor should also support legislation in the 2014 Budget Support Act to provide funding only for students actually enrolled in both DCPS and public charter schools. Currently, the charters get paid this way, but DCPS is paid for its estimated enrollment, which is always significantly higher than its actual enrollment as shown by an annual audit.

Additionally, the mayor's budget should break with the past practice of funding other government agencies to provide free services to DCPS that the charters have to pay for out of their Uniform Per Student Funding Formula appropriation. The most egregious example of this is the $40 million or so that is appropriated annually to the Department of Government Services to do building maintenance for DCPS. DCPS, like the charter schools, already gets maintenance funding through the formula, but, unlike the charter schools, doesn't have to use that funding for building upkeep.

In all, these operating funding inequities come annually to an extra $1,500 to $2,000 for every DCPS student that public charter school students don't get. To that, one must add the extra millions that the District government provides for DCPS capital needs.

None of this unfairness is justified by the job the charter schools are doing. Among students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, D.C. charter students pass the city's standardized reading and math tests at higher rates than their peers in the traditional system. The average pass rate for economically disadvantaged charter students is 14 percentage points higher than the pass rate of their peers in the city-run school system.

District charter high schools have a graduation rate 27 percentage points higher than the city's open-enrollment high schools. Partly because of this, charter high school students also are much more likely to be accepted to college than their peers in city-run high schools.

Polling reveals that six in 10 District voters believe public school funding should be equalized for all D.C. students, as the mayor promised. The mayor has taken some important steps to bring government policy in line with public opinion. Will he finish the job?

Robert Cane is executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

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