School Choice Reduces Neighborhood School Resources

Parents in Wards 7 and 8 Vote with Their Feet

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A class at Mundo Verde, a bilingual DC Public Charter School. Photo: Ann-Marie Van Tassell.

Camara Francis wakes her son shortly after 6 a.m. and gets him ready for the day, sending him downstairs to his father to dress and eat breakfast while she gets ready for work. The household is a well-oiled machine in the morning. It has to be. Everyone needs to be in the right place at the right time so the family can be out the door and in the car by 7:30. Ahead of them is a drive of more than an hour to school and then to the office.

The Francis family lives so close to their neighborhood school, Plummer Elementary, that their kindergartener could sleep until after 8:00 in the morning and still make it well in advance of the 8:45 start. Instead, Francis’s husband switched to a night shift at work and everyone altered their schedules so their five-year-old could attend an alternative school in Northwest.

“It’s really stressful for families, and it’s a stress for us,” Francis said. “We sacrifice a lot, even just in the commuting time, because DCPS [District of Columbia Public Schools] is not willing to invest in neighborhood schools in the way they should.”

In the District, school funding is directly linked to student enrollment. So, when Francis’s son moved to a public charter school, the money followed him, effectively reducing the budget of Plummer Elementary.

Enrollment Key to Budgets

The District of Columbia determines funding for DCPS and charter schools using a formula that is based on the next-year enrollment projections. The formula allocates a per-pupil dollar amount for each projected student, as well as for student classifications such as early language learners or special education. Schools with smaller populations are more expensive to operate because DC has no standard for increasing the budget to keep up with fixed facility costs such as energy bills and maintenance, aside from school enrollment.

Plummer’s enrollment has been declining, from 416 students in 2013 to 331 in 2018-19. But the auditor’s report finds that enrollment projections are often inaccurate and fail to account for mid-year student movement. According to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), a total of 382 students were served by Plummer last year, meaning that the school served an additional 51 students for various periods and times, using a budget based on the October count. Last year, 75% of the student body was deemed at-risk.

In a letter to DC Auditor Kathleen Patterson, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said projections are largely accurate, adding that his office had commissioned a study of the adequacy of at-risk funding. “We look forward to working with our schools, school communities, and agencies to continue to improve upon our processes and help plan for the future,” Kihn wrote.

Declining enrollment tightens resources, forcing administrators to decide what to fund and making schools less attractive options for choice.

Enrollment and Mobility

Francis and her family are part of a growing number of parents making the choice to send their children to schools outside of the neighborhood. A recent report commissioned by the DC Office of the Auditor, “Enrollment Projections in DC’s Public Schools: Controls Are Needed to Ensure Funding Equity,” found that many students leave their ward of residence daily for school: 52% in Ward 7 and 63% in Ward 8. “This research raises important questions about unintended consequences,” said Patterson. “Choice affects mobility, and mobility affects achievement, and we just don’t know enough about the impact of our current practices.”

The report also raises important questions about the long-term impact of the city’s robust-choice environment. It highlights the interconnected nature of public-school enrollment and subsequent resource allocation. It identifies a pattern of District families moving away from schools that have more students considered at-risk to schools with fewer students considered at-risk.

That pattern is facilitated by the school lottery system in DC, and it impacts schools with high levels of student poverty that subsequently face declining enrollment followed by declining resources, creating a vicious cycle.

Weighing the Options

Francis said that her son had a great early childhood learning experience in Pre-K3 and Pre-K4 at Plummer Elementary School (4601 Texas Ave. SE). However, as he entered kindergarten, she wanted a more immersive experience, particularly in terms of languages. Learning languages is an issue that Francis sees as so important in closing the achievement gap that she founded a not-for-profit, East of the River Foreign Languages for Kids, to create opportunities in Wards 7 and 8.

The school’s lack of resources extends to infrastructure. Francis described how children dodge rocks created by broken-down playground pavement. Last year, after DCPS announced it was reducing the budgets of 20 schools –17 in Wards 7 and 8, including Plummer – she testified before the DC Council that the school needed a new playground, a new roof and work in the library.

“I wasn’t completely confident these upgrades were going to happen,” Francis said. “I realized frankly that Ward 7 schools were not really a priority – that’s how I felt – so I had to weigh the options for my child.”

She had reason to be worried. When she testified, she said councilmembers told her that budgets are based on enrollment. Enrollment at Plummer was dropping.

Whose Choice?

Eboni-Rose Thompson says that the city should be working to guarantee equitable education for kids. The chair of the Ward 7 Education Council said that does not mean taking choice off the table, but it argues for investing in neighborhood schools, the only place kids are assured a place in the classroom.

Thompson said that a system that depends on enrollment for resources is not sustainable. Parents don’t want to send their children to a school in the hope that it will have sufficient enrollment to be adequately funded, she said.

The auditor’s office is shining light on the issue of who takes advantage of school choice, itself an issue of equity, Thompson added. While some students benefit from the system, those who do not are those with the greatest needs. The problem, she said, is that the choice system presumes people will go through multiple processes in order to access a good education. “What happens if the adults in your life aren’t doing that for you?” she asked. “Whether that is because they don’t have the information, or the time or the access or the resources – you don’t have a choice. That shouldn’t be the case.”

When you think about how rapidly the city is changing, she added, and the impact on neighborhoods, it becomes even more important to make a commitment to schools and the children who attend them. “If we’re going to hold kids steady,” Thompson said, “we have to hold schools steady. Period.”

“I Don’t Think It’s a Choice”

Last spring, after weighing the options, Francis put her son’s name in the DC Lottery. He was matched with bilingual public charter school Mundo Verde (30 P St. NW). Describing the budget that teachers work with at Mundo Verde as “ridiculous” compared to what Plummer had to cope with, Francis said that the school offers courses like music and robotics in addition to language. It also has a school garden to teach about food and wellness. “These are things that are not looked at as ‘enrichment.’ They are part of the core curriculum,” she said.

Though the family is satisfied with Mundo Verde, Francis said that the choice process was stressful and complicated, and with sibling and distance preferences playing roles, not as random a lottery as parents are led to believe. “I don’t think it’s choice at all,” she said. “A choice would be: my neighborhood school is a solid, fine, functional school where he’s going to get a comparable education to a [public elementary school like] Oyster or Marie Reed. And I don’t feel that way.”

The District’s apparent inability to provide every school with sufficient resources to meet the needs of students is ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy, Francis said. “How do you prevent schools from failing, if you don’t give them the resources?” she asked. “If the school isn’t properly funded, it’s ultimately headed for closure.”

You can read the auditor’s report at www.dcauditor.org/report/enrollment-projections-in-d-c-public-schools-controls-needed-to-ensure-funding-equity.

Learn about the Ward 7 Education Council at www.ward7edcouncil.org, and learn about Francis’s language not-for-profit at www.eotrlingokids.com.

An earlier version of the story misidentified Marie Reed and Oyster as public charter schools. The Hill Rag regrets the error.