Written Testimony Submitted to the District of Columbia Council Committee of the Whole and Committee on Education
Public Hearing on B23–0046, the “At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act of 2019,” and B23–0239, the “School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019”
June 26, 2019
Thank you Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Grosso and Members of the Committee on Education for offering this opportunity to provide testimony today. My name is Jessica Sutter and I am honored to represent Ward 6 on the DC State Board of Education. I am testifying today in my personal capacity.
During my 20 years in education, I have been on multiple sides of the work of policy including implementing policy in my classroom as a teacher and now, as a state board member with responsibility for approving specific statewide education policy in the District.
I believe that those who write law and policy do so with positive intent. I am heartened by policy that seeks to improve equity in our education system and provide the public with access to clear and understandable information about our public schools.
However, I am wary that well-intentioned policy efforts often lead to duplicative and burdensome requests of education professionals in our schools. I am also concerned that legislation sometimes veers into “kitchen sink” territory, attempting to accomplish many goals at once rather than a single goal clearly. The two bills before you today are prime examples of these tensions.
First, B23–0046, the “At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act of 2019.” According to this week’s ODCA report, there is significant room for improvement to ensure that all LEAs in DC are spending at-risk funds in ways that supplement educational programming to benefit children with the greatest needs for support and enrichment. Both the At-Risk funding bill and the ODCA recommendations ask for more detailed reporting of how funds are spent, including line-item budget accounting to ensure LEAs use at-risk dollars to supplement, not supplant, other UPSFF dollars directed to schools.
It is worth noting that just last week, the US Department of Education released non-regulatory guidance about the revisions to “supplement, not-supplant” provision of Title I funding in ESSA. The intent of the change is to “provide more flexibility for schools to utilize Title I funds to implement comprehensive and innovative programs. LEAs will be able to demonstrate [supplement not supplant] compliance in a much less burdensome and restrictive way…”
It is an interesting contrast: the federal government is seeking to reduce burdensome reporting on federal “at-risk” Title I funds and allow LEAs flexibility while the District is seeking to make our reporting compliance more detailed and specific.
I believe that greater oversight of at-risk funding is needed to ensure the goal of getting more funding to schools serving students with great needs for support and enrichment. I do wonder if requiring more detailed reports of LEAs by December 31 is the most effective means of oversight, or if we might use existing public reporting differently to accomplish the same goal.
Under the state ESSA Plan, OSSE is slated to begin gathering comparable data on school-based budgets from all public school LEAs in the District this December. The data on actual per-pupil expenditure by school will be reported on the individual School Report Cards in 2021. While this will be only a basic level of information on school-based budgets, it will be an illuminating look at whether schools across the District are truly being equitably funded, both within and across LEAs.
I empathize with the interest expressed in the second bill, B23–0239, the “School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019,” to go farther than the OSSE plan and to call for more detailed and comparable data across schools.
Using the data DCPS shared about its FY20 school-level budgets, some basic calculations are possible to any member of the public. I calculated the allocated budgets to all Ward 6 DCPS schools on a per-pupil basis, as well as the amount each school is slated to receive per-pupil to serve the needs of their projected population of students considered at risk.
Our elementary schools show huge variance.
The two elementary schools with the highest expected enrollment of students considered at-risk are Amidon-Bowen ES (74%) and Miner ES (73%). According to the DC School Report Card, a separate document in a separate location, both schools serve comparable numbers of special education students (22% and 21% respectively). Amidon-Bowen receives $14,205 per student in the FY20 budget. Miner ES, with marginally fewer students identified as at-risk and special education receives $15,864 per student. Amidon-Bowen receives $1659 less per pupil in the FY20 budget than does Miner ES.
Why? What explanation might be offered for that difference?
Also according to the DC School Report Card, Miner serves a significantly larger population of students who are homeless — perhaps this is the reason for the difference. It is unclear from the information provided to the public on the school-based budget. Similar kinds of questions could be asked about the distribution of at-risk funding. While all of the at-risk allocations hover around $2000, the variance between the highest ($2130 @ Peabody) and the lowest ($2038 @ Ludlow-Taylor) is $81 per child. Additionally, it would seem inconsistent with the projected need at given schools. SWS @ Goding, which serves approximately 28 students designated at-risk (9% of its student population) receives $2114 per student, while Miner ES, which serves 258 students designated at-risk (73% of its total student population) receives only $2088, $26 less per student.
Why? Again, the information is unclear from what is available to the public.
Similar trends are clear at the middle school level.
The per pupil difference between Eliot-Hine (74% at-risk) and Jefferson (64% at-risk) is $4810 per student. There are significant differences in the percentage of students with disabilities who are served (27% and 20% respectively, according to the DC School Report Card) and students who are homeless (19% and 3% respectively, also according to the DC School Report Card).
While the current DCPS budget documents allow me to see how each school plans to spend its allocated dollars, I do not think it helps the public understand whether our school funding is equitable.
That makes me ask, what is your intent with the bills under consideration today? Is it to create a common, statewide system for budgeting across both sectors of schools? To publicly display how schools budget and then actually spend the money allocated to them? Or is it to push for equity in how funding is allocated to schools serving students with significant needs for support?
As I said at the start, I think policies like those before you today are well-intentioned, but policy is a blunt tool. These two pieces of legislation seem to be attempting to accomplish many noble goals, but all via additional, more detailed, and duplicative reporting by LEAs.
I would encourage Council to streamline these requests and to use existing public data tools to truly inform the public about how public funding is being spent in our public schools and whether that spending is equitable.
First, I suggest additional school-based budget information be displayed on the OSSE School Report Cards. Beyond the federal and state/local breakdown of per-pupil funding sent on each school, I would suggest Council direct OSSE to add at-risk funding per-pupil. I would also encourage the Council to review the recommendations of the SBOE ESSA Task Force for additional spending information that advisory group would like to see included on the School Report Cards.The School Report Cards are far more accessible, in format and ease of understanding, to the general public than are annual reports to Council.
Second, I would encourage Council to focus the intent of these pieces of legislation on the issue of funding equity. While I value transparency of funding information, I am far more interested in understanding whether we are spending our public education dollars in ways that serve our students equitably. I think narrowing the reporting requests to hone in on funding equity will lead to richer public conversations and more focused oversight of educational equity in the District.
Finally, I think that transparency cannot simply mean annual reporting. To that end, I fully support open meetings for public charter schools and am glad that provision is included in this legislation. Allowing for the public to witness & be informed about school-based budget processes as they happen is valuable for developing trust as well as understanding. I do encourage the Council to address concerns from public charter schools about the need for “executive session” provisions that extend beyond what is currently allowable under the Administrative Procedures Act.
In summary, I believe the public has a right to know how its funds are being spent. The public also deserves access to tools that will truly enable understanding in ways that matter to parents, teachers and community members.