Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole Budget Oversight Hearing

Jun 25, 2021

Good morning, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee. My name is Shannon Hodge and I am the Founding Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that all students in the District receive the great public education they deserve.

This is not the first time I’ve appeared before this committee advocating on behalf of charter school students. In fact, I’ve been here every step of the way making sure that our students are represented and our school leaders have a seat at the table in this process. As one of the most difficult school years on record comes to a close, we must remember that all the hardships we experienced were felt more acutely by students in low-income communities. That’s why today, I’ll be focusing my testimony on the education needs still necessary for a bold and just recovery for our students.

Our school leaders care deeply about making sure the students who attend charter schools can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally – which will, in turn, help every community in our city thrive. Our schools have been working tirelessly to make sure students – and their families – are supported in every way possible.

We know our city leaders share the same goal. That’s why I’m encouraged by Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget, and the first steps she and her administration have taken toward prioritizing education and an equitable recovery.

As we move further into recovery, the next school year for our students will be critical, which is why I appreciate Mayor Bowser’s leadership in the budget process so far. As the Council of the District of Columbia now considers the budget, I urge you to build on the Mayor’s proposal to support continued, increased, and equitable investments in public education.

Two components of the Mayor’s Budget proposal move the city further away from equitable treatment by disadvantaging the more than 44,000 students who attend public charter schools: the budget stabilization provision and the failure to increase the facilities allotment. We are certain this was not the intent of the Administration, and we urge the Council to correct these issues so that the city can make real strides toward the education outcomes that all students in the city deserve.

Apply Budget Stabilization Equitably

The proposed Budget Support Act (BSA) budget stabilization provision for DC Public Schools (DCPS) creates a permanent second-class funding system for public charter schools. As currently written, the BSA amends the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF) to create a permanent mechanism to maintain DCPS school-level budgets at 95% of their prior-year budgets, year over year, regardless of actual or projected enrollment. Yet no such provision is made for charter schools, where funding is based on actual, not projected, enrollment.

Both DCPS schools and charter schools experienced the challenges of the last year. Both made adjustments to meet the academic and non-academic needs of their school communities. Both made difficult decisions to ensure that resources were applied responsibly and effectively. Both faced enrollment challenges. Yet, the BSA only provides a safety net for one. We hope that this was inadvertent rather than intentional.

We’re empathetic to the budget challenges of all the city’s public schools, especially those most affected by pandemic-related enrollment fluctuations. And we understand how the Council can make smart policy decisions to respond to those fluctuations, as you did last year when you provided one-time budget stabilization funding for adult charter schools and residential schools to allow them to receive funding based on enrollment projections, similar to how DCPS is funded. In making that decision, you protected critical educational infrastructure against enrollment fluctuations for a small subset of schools.

The solution to this year’s enrollment and budget fluctuations is not to create an inequitable system that harms 44,000 public school students, which is what would happen if this proposed BSA provision is enacted into law as written. With this amendment, DCPS, which is already protected against many of the uncertainties of enrollment because it is funded on projected rather than actual audited enrollment, will receive more than $12 million for budget stabilization funding this year. And, that stabilization funding appears to be available in perpetuity. However, charter school funding will continue to be based on actual, audited enrollment, which won’t be known until October at the earliest.

We recommend that the Council consider one of the following alternatives to ensure that the budget does not create a permanent second-class funding system for public charter schools:

  1. Allow access to the same stabilization funding for charter schools, especially those hit hardest by fluctuating enrollment due to the pandemic (i.e., adult, early childhood,  residential, and new schools) and limit stabilization funding to one year only; or 
  2. Amend the Mayor’s proposed budget stabilization amendment to create a stabilization fund administered by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to ensure that all public schools—traditional and charters—receive at least 95% of the funding received in the last school year before the pandemic affected enrollment (SY20-21 for DCPS and SY19-20 for public charter schools).

Fully Fund the Facilities Allotment

As schools continue to expand their in-person offerings to students, school buildings must be safe and well-maintained. In D.C., space is a premium. Managing facilities is costly, and the need to reconfigure existing space or lease extra space to follow distancing guidelines for students and staff is a significant investment. School facilities costs are rapidly increasing. And thanks to rising construction and materials costs from a surge in activity during the pandemic, minor improvements and maintenance costs have risen dramatically in the last year.

This year, schools invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure buildings can support in-person learning this spring and next school year. But the current facilities allotment is not sufficient to cover regular facility-related costs, much less the increased costs of operating facilities safely during a global pandemic. According to a DC Alliance facilities needs survey that nearly two-thirds of charter school leaders completed, more than half of charter schools are unable to cover all facilities costs with charter facilities funding at the current allotment level. And given inflation and rising construction costs, next year’s facilities allotment effectively provides them with even less funding to operate facilities safely next school year.

We understand that the Mayor’s budget proposal places $10 million into a grant for charter schools to assist with reopening costs in the next school year. This alternative to fully funding the facilities allotment is problematic for charter schools. The most recent iteration of a charter facilities grant illustrates why.

On December 21, 2020, Mayor Bowser announced a $10 million grant to support and prioritize returning charter school students to buildings, with OSSE administering the program and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education supporting it. The grant application process did not begin until March 11, 2021. Schools that applied for the grant received notification of their funding allocations on May 11. And at that point—nearly five months after the grant was announced—schools could finally begin applying for reimbursements for funds already expended. And that was only for schools that received grant funds. Not all schools that applied did.

Relying on a similar program for the upcoming school year, when every student is expected to be in a school building on the very first day of school, is unreasonable and insufficient. Based on what schools experienced with the first round of the grant program, it will take at least two months from the time schools are able to apply for the grant for schools to find out how much funding they will receive from the grant program. At this rate, the school year will have begun for thousands of charter school students before leaders know how much funding, if any, they will receive from the grant program. That delay was at best manageable this school year when in-person schooling was limited. It is unworkable for the upcoming school year. The Council should not substitute a much-needed increase in the facilities allotment for a grant program for which schools have received no official information.

Consistent funding of our facilities is key for both budget predictability for school leaders and providing a safe learning environment for our students. In our facilities survey, one school leader reported that “unless the City makes a commitment to fund facilities at a more realistic amount, over time more and more of our UPSFF will need to be re-directed away from direct student services and teacher salaries in order to afford our rent.” The importance of facilities and facilities funding is clear in the more than $1.57 billion the Mayor proposes to allocate for DCPS facility modernization over the next six years. At the very least, charter schools need adequate funding in the facilities allotment. Our students—and yours—deserve nothing less.

The budget must increase the facilities allotment for charter schools by 3.1 percent or provide clear direction to OSSE to ensure facilities grant funding will be distributed on a per pupil basis and be available prior to the opening of schools in the fall.  And to ensure continuity, consistency, and predictability of funding for charter school facilities, the Council should amend the BSA to guarantee a 3.1 percent annual increase for the facilities allotment for each of the next five years.

Invest in Schools and Students

Finally, as we consider the challenges facing our public education system and broader community due to the pandemic, we need bold and targeted investments in our schools and students. That means the city needs to:

  • Provide an additional $841,000 over the $5.8 million in Mayor Bowser’s proposal to fully fund the expansion of the DBH’s school-based mental health program and offer much needed support to community-based organizations and DBH clinicians who will work tirelessly for students during this time of recovery. 
  • Increase the UPSFF foundation formula by 4 percent to the level recommended in the 2013 adequacy study. 
  • Fully fund the at-risk and English Language Learner weights to the levels recommended by the 2013 adequacy study to ensure schools have the resources they need to support their most vulnerable students.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.