It may still be really hot, but the start of the school year means that, really, summer is over. Beyond fresh backpacks and school supplies, there are lots of other new things and opportunities happening in DC schools this fall. The just-released PARCC test scores show overall progress in student performance — but only limited progress in closing inequities by race and income. DC’s education leaders are looking to re-design our inadequate school funding formula, just months after they adopted a budget that cut funding to many schools in Wards 7 and 8. And the Council will likely finish legislation this fall to make school budgets more transparent, important to parents and principals alike, that could also help make sure the budgets are more equitable.
One other new thing in schools this fall: there will be nearly 100 more mental health professionals across DC schools, as DC moves to phase out punitive disciplinary practices like suspension and replace them with more positive investments that support children’s healthy development.
The outcomes of these actions could make a big difference in the lives of DC students.
Progress in New Test Scores? Yes and No
One popular headline for DC’s latest test scores is that more students scored college ready last year, though only in English Language Arts. However, another important headline is that progress for Black students and students considered “at-risk” improved less than overall, meaning that the city is failing on perhaps its most important education task.
Some 37.1 percent of students in DC Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools are on track in English Language Arts (ELA) to graduate ready for college and careers, up from 33.3 percent last year. Some 30.5 percent meet that standard in math, a modest bump from 29.4 percent.
Another bright spot is that Latinx students made notable progress last year, more than any other racial/ethnic group.
But there are reasons for all of us to be troubled by the scores. While 85 percent of white students are on track in ELA, just 28 percent of Black students are, and the gap did not narrow this year. Just 21 percent of students who are considered “at-risk” of falling behind are doing well; these are students who either are in families with low incomes, experiencing homelessness, in foster care, or overage for their grade. The results for English-Language Learners and students with disabilities are even worse.
This means that our schools are serving white students and higher-income students well, but failing the vast majority of Black students and low-income students. The racial inequities in school outcomes show that today’s students remain affected by a legacy of racism that denied opportunity to their parents and grandparents. DC schools were segregated until the 1950s, with Black schools under-resourced compared to white schools. And housing policy decisions, from redlining to urban renewal, resulted in a large concentration of Black residents in Wards 7 and 8. Today, Black students typically attend schools where at least 40 percent of students are low-income or otherwise at risk, while most white students are in schools where only a small share of students are at risk.
Undoing these inequities impacts should be a top priority for all of us. The better all of our children do, the stronger our economy and community will be.
School Budgets Get a Failing Grade
One option to addressing these historical inequities is to enact an adequate overall school budget and then intentionally provide more financial resources for students attending schools in areas of the District that traditionally faced divestment. Yet, the way that DCPS allocates funds among schools is leading to cuts at these schools.
The budget for this school year actually shortchanges all students. The budget increased per-student funding by 3 percent this year, yet the average expense for a DCPS teacher is growing 4 percent, meaning that DCPS schools don’t have enough to maintain staffing and services. Beyond that, DCPS’s allocation choices across schools resulted in deep budget cuts in many schools in Wards 7 and 8, which primarily educate Black students. The Council offset some, but not all, of the cuts. And for years, the District has not abided by requirements to devote more funds for low-income students and others at-risk of falling behind. Schools get roughly $2,200 for every student considered at-risk, yet DCPS knowingly diverts half of this funding to other schools and other purposes. Underfunding education, and hijacking resources that target students facing the most oppression, isn’t a winning strategy to improve educational outcomes or grow the economy in the District.
The one bright spot is that things have gotten so bad that the Bowser Administration is taking time to think about how to do school budgeting better. The city commissioned research on ways to strengthen the at-risk portion of school funding, and how to measure how much school funding needs to grow each year to keep up with rising costs. That study is on a tight timeline, with a January 2020 due date for the first portion of the study and February 2020 for the remainder portion. It will be important for the city leaders to engage parents and other school stakeholders to shape this research and to get feedback on preliminary recommendations. The families affected by school funding decisions, and especially those most affected by the current shortcomings, should have a say.
School Budget Transparency: Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant
The budget for DC schools is developed too much in the dark, with disastrous results like this year. School budgets that meet the needs of all students, engage parents, and reverse historic education inequities faced by Black students should be built collaboratively with all the information needed to make sound funding decisions. Two bills the Council is considering — the School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act and the At-Risk Funding Transparency Amendment Act — would help deliver better budget outcomes. The bills would require more uniform accounting for school expenses across DCPS and public charter schools and more transparency over how school budgets are built each year. In particular, the bills would improve education equity by demanding more transparency over at-risk funds. Stakeholders at each school would get information on their at-risk funding and then develop a plan for how those funds are used. Engaging principals, teachers, and parents would help ensure that investments in their school truly lead to better outcomes for their students.
Coming Soon: More School-Based Mental Health Staff
Mayor Bowser and the DC Council made a substantial commitment to supporting students by adding funds for nearly 100 mental health staff across schools. That’s not enough to have a new position at every DCPS and charter school campus, but it is important progress. Currently, DCPS social workers devote much of their time with students with disabilities, supporting their Individualized Education Plan, while counselor and psychologists must spend time on things like scheduling and standardized test administration. Having staff devoted to mental health and socio-emotional well-being will help all students and strengthen the ability of schools to address the trauma many students face as a result of poverty and violence in their communities. This enhanced staffing is critical to the success of legislation adopted in 2018 — the Student Fair Access to Schools Act — that limits the ability of schools to use punitive disciplinary practices that have proven to be discriminatory and ineffective, including suspensions and expulsions.
The school year may already be underway, but it’s not too early to be planning for how we can do better to provide a high-quality education for all students in the next school year and beyond. It’s important for all of us to use our voices to ensure that city leaders take bold action to address gross inequities, ensuring that we are setting up children to thrive and get ahead.
Ed Lazere is the Executive Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI promotes budget and policy solutions to reduce poverty and inequality in the District of Columbia and increase opportunities for residents to build a better future.