In a disappointing decision, a U.S. District Judge recently ruled against the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought on behalf of the District of Columbia’s public charter schools.  My organization, which represents D.C. charters, and Eagle Academy and Washington Latin Public Charter Schools reluctantly sought a legal remedy to the District government’s ongoing flouting of its own public school funding law.

D.C.’s School Reform Act 1995 requires all District of Columbia public schools’ operating costs to be funded exclusively through a Uniform Per-Student Funding Formula.  The UPSFF stipulates that District public schools receive the same per-student dollar amount for each child at the same grade or special education level.  Yet the judge ruled contrary to the law’s letter and spirit.

Not disputed is the fact that the District government has for years violated the SRA’s principle of equity by financing D.C. Public Schools outside the UPSFF.  One respected report found that DCPS, but not charters, received between $72 million and $127 million annually on top of formula funds—underfunding charter students by an average of $2,150 each year from 2008 to 2014, when the lawsuit was filed.

Ramona Edelin

Government agencies also provide DCPS with free services for school operations, including legal services and maintenance, among others.  Additionally, UPSFF monies are allocated to DCPS based on often overly-optimistic enrollment estimates, funds that are not then returned, whereas charters receive payment only for actual enrollment numbers.

The SRA states: “For fiscal year 1997 and for each subsequent fiscal year, the Mayor shall make annual payments from the general fund of the District of Columbia in accordance with the formula,” and the “annual payment…shall be calculated by multiplying a uniform dollar amount used in the formula” by “the number of students…that are enrolled” at “District of Columbia public schools” and “at each public charter school.”  Despite this clarity and a legislative history that confirms that Congress intended that funding be uniform and cover all operating expenses of DCPS, the Judge held that non-formula funding for DCPS does not violate the SRA and that plaintiffs have no standing to challenge DCPS enrollment calculation methods.

Because the Court did not set any limits on the District’s discretion to fund DCPS outside the UPSFF, it opens the door to this or a future D.C. Council eviscerating the SRA’s uniform funding requirement in its entirety.

Open to all District students, charter schools educate nearly half of D.C. public school children.  Publicly-funded and tuition-free, like traditional public schools, charters determine their schools’ curriculum and culture and are held to account for improved educational outcomes by the city’s charter board, whose members are appointed by D.C.’s mayor.  The board may approve or reject time-limited charter applications; monitors school performance and can close campuses.

Unchallenged, the Court’s decision would entrench unfairness that discriminates against some of the District’s most vulnerable children.  Half of D.C. public school students are ‘at risk’—homeless or in foster care; eligible for government financial and nutrition assistance; or overage and under-credited.  Four in five charter students are economically-disadvantaged, a higher share than DCPS.

City-funding equity is especially important considering the impact charters have in the District’s most underserved neighborhoods.  In Wards Seven and Eight, charter students are more than twice as likely to meet college and career readiness benchmarks on standardized tests as their counterparts in DCPS schools.  And African-American charter high-school students’ on-time graduation rate is 73 percent, whereas it is 62 percent for DCPS contemporaries.

From a school system in which an estimated half of students dropped out when the charter reform was introduced to the significantly higher graduation rates and standardized test scores of today, charters have led the way as results have improved in both sectors.  Charters’ success also motivated the District to bring DCPS under mayoral control, with three pro-reform Chancellors appointed.

Thanks to its success, support for the SRA is not confined to charter advocates.  The city itself concluded that the SRA “requires uniform funding of operating expenses for both DCPS and charter schools” and found D.C. public education funding is nonetheless “inequitable,” in a study to investigate school funding.

The principle of equality enshrined in the SRA is designed to treat children in our city’s public schools equally in the distribution of local taxpayer school operation funds.  Why would our government not?

Dr. Ramona Edelin is Executive Director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools