D.C. Charter Schools Lawsuit Alleges Funding Disparities

Dorothy Rowley | 8/4/2014, 3:07 p.m.
A lawsuit against the D.C. government has been filed on behalf of three members of a D.C. public charter schools ...
D.C.'s public charter schools have roughly 38,000 enrolled students, compared to the 45,000 students enrolled in the public schools system. (Courtesy photo)

A lawsuit against the D.C. government has been filed on behalf of three members of a D.C. public charter schools association and two of its schools, alleging a significant gap in funding between the charters and public schools.

The lawsuit, filed July 30 against the District and lame-duck Mayor Vincent C. Gray, targets the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Southeast, and Washington Latin Public Charter School in Northwest, whose officials demand an end to what they say is the city government's long-standing practice of illegally funding charter school students at a lower rate than their public-school counterparts.

The lawsuit covers the past eight years, when the practice allegedly deprived public charter school students of nearly $800 million.

"The legal action is a last resort. It does not seek damages for past underfunding, which totals more than $770 million just since fiscal year 2008," the plaintiffs said in a July 31 statement. "Instead, it asks the court to enjoin the D.C. government from continuing to flout the equal funding law. All public school students should have the same protections and resources from their government."

The plaintiffs, who maintain that the District government has continually ignored the fundamental requirement to equally fund schools, said each public charter school student has consequently been underfunded by as much as $2,600 annually.

In explaining that the District's charter schools — like the DCPS system — are public facilities, the plaintiffs noted that the charters educate almost half — or 38,000 — of all students enrolled in schools in the city. By comparison, DCPS enrolls about 45,000 students.

But charter officials say they've been shortchanged by the city, including agencies such as the Department of General Services, which has allegedly provided more free facility maintenance to regular public schools. Charter schools officials say they've had to struggle to keep up with competitive teacher salaries and other essential expenses.

The plaintiffs alluded to the D.C. School Reform Act of 1995, which established public charter schools in the District and subsequently changed how public education in the city is funded.

"Instead of funding schools, the government would fund students, and the same amount of public funding would attach to students sharing the same characteristics," the plaintiffs said. "So, for example, two third-grade students needing Level 1 special education funding would be funded at the same level, including when one of those students attended DCPS and the other a public charter school.

The plaintiffs claim that after more than a decade of meetings, protests and negotiations, the charter community will no longer tolerate inequitable funding.

In January, the District government released a study that concluded funding disparities between the two school systems are contrary to city law. The study called for increasing public school funding by more than 15 percent — at least $180 million a year — so that the schools would have adequate resources for improving student achievement.

The study's costly recommendations, which would be implemented over several years, include providing adequate resources for improving student achievement and raising the city's basic per-pupil allocation for both the charter and DCPS system from $9,306 to $11,628.

Recommendations also call for additional money for programs aimed at preventing academic failure among at-risk students and those learning English as a second language.