Opinion

D.C. charters shortchanged again, with no end in sight

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As the District of Columbia Council considered Mayor Vincent Gray's $77 million supplemental spending package last week, rumors began flying. One was that D.C. public charter schools' quarterly payment from the city might be stopped unless the council approved the mayor's package.

Hours before the mayor spoke at an annual gathering of D.C.'s public charter school community, his office announced $9.4 million for charters to cover "spending pressures." This was his way of falsely implying that charters, which are run independently of D.C. Public Schools and educate 41 percent of the District's public schoolchildren, had overspent the funds appropriated for them.

In fact, the money was already owed to charters under an automatic formula set in law. The mayor misleadingly categorized this money as a "supplemental" increase to charters' budget, despite the fact that the city would have to pay it anyway.

D.C. owes the charters $2.8 million because of increased special education enrollment, and an additional $6.6 million was earmarked for higher-than-expected summer school enrollment. When student enrollment increases, the city has to increase funding, as the charters and the parallel DCPS system receive money according to how many students they enroll.

The real reason behind the mayor's miscategorization appears to be to provide political cover for his proposal to supplement the budget for DCPS -- the regular public school system -- to cover $25.2 million of actual overspending. Unlike charter schools, which have to cut back if they overspend, DCPS routinely outspends its appropriation.

Eventually, the council approved a fraction of the mayor's supplemental request, including $7 million for charter schools. But under D.C. law, DCPS and the charters are supposed to be funded equally. In defiance of the law, the mayor wanted to pour an extra $25.2 million into DCPS while giving nothing to charter students.

This would widen the funding disparity between charters and DCPS, which has increased over the years as the city has poured money into DCPS outside the funding formula mandated by law.

Gray actually campaigned on a promise to close the disparity in funding between DCPS schools and charters. Over the past five years, each District charter student was allocated between about $1,500 and $2,500 less annually than his or her DCPS peers in city funds. This is despite the fact that a recent city commissioned study found greater need in the charters. Seventy-five percent of District charter students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, compared with only 67 percent of DCPS students.

Public charter schools are a lifeline upon which D.C.'s disadvantaged students depend. The charters' high school graduation rate is 80 percent, compared with only 53 percent for DCPS.

The administration claims it has increased funding for charter schools' facilities from $2,800 per student to $3,000 -- a feat for which it relied upon federal money that could disappear at any time. No additional city money has been allocated for charters' facilities per student. Meanwhile, the mayor proposes to set facilities funding for DCPS at $7,992 per student -- over two and half times what the city provides for each charter student.

Gray created high hopes for equality for charter schools when he created a commission to make recommendations to end the funding disparity. It failed to make any. Perhaps the city's charter students could be forgiven for wondering what happened to the mayor's pledge to close the funding gap they face.

They need the council's help: The budget negotiations are council members' chance to force real progress toward what the mayor promised but hasn't delivered.

Robert Cane is Executive Director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a D.C. nonprofit that promotes school reform.

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