Now that the District of Columbia and the Washington Teachers’ Union have a new teachers’ contract, attention has been given to the benefits that will accrue to the approximately 4,000 teachers employed at 115 schools in D.C. Public Schools. The package for the traditional public school system, which has the highest first-year teacher salary in the nation at $53,000, includes a four percent retroactive salary increase this fiscal year, a three percent increase in 2018 and a two percent increase in 2019.
Pay raises for the school system will cost the government $61.6 million, but what has been less noticed is the $51.2 million that will accrue to the District’s public charter schools, also partially retroactively, for this year and going forward.
Public charter schools educate nearly half of all District school children enrolled in public school. These unique public schools are tuition-free and open to D.C.-resident students on a non-selective basis, but are free to determine their own educational programs while being held accountable for improved student performance by the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
District law requires that funds for public school operational costs are distributed according to a Uniform Per-Student Funding Formula, which is designed to ensure that students receive equal public funding at each grade and level of special education.
The District government has not always fulfilled its legal requirements in this regard — one study found that the city illegally funded DCPS by between $72 million and $127 million annually outside the formula, over a period of five years. But this appropriation, which results from the new union contract for city-run schools, will benefit every public school student, including those enrolled at charters.
As such, the additional funds are a welcome investment in our city’s future — its children — and represent a significant acknowledgement of the importance of fair funding for students attending both types of public school, charter and traditional.
Equity matters, because the District’s public educational institutions serve a student population which requires that the government take meaningful steps to ameliorate poverty and its devastating effects on children and families. This is more true of public charter schools than it is for DCPS.
Half of District public school children, in both charter schools and DCPS, are “at risk.” This is defined as: being homeless or in foster care; qualifying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); or overage and under-credited students.
Three-quarters of District public school students are growing up in economically-disadvantaged homes and a higher share — 80 percent — in charter schools. Charters also educate a higher share of minority students than the traditional school system.
Both resources and legislative reforms have been essential for efforts to address poverty through the education system, just as they are for doing so in other areas of social policy. In this regard, the District’s public charter schools have enabled great strides forward — with much more to be done.
Newly-released scores for last school year show that charter students in D.C.’s economically disadvantaged Wards 7 and 8 are more than twice as likely to meet state college and career readiness standards as their peers in DCPS. And the on-time — within four years — high school graduation rate among charters is 73 percent for American-American students, compared to 62 percent for their peers in DCPS.
Stronger results in terms of higher standardized test scores and graduation rates have been accompanied by increasingly enriched curricula and more extracurricular activities.
An often overlooked benefit of public charter schools is the impetus they provided to improve the traditional public school system. Before reform, an estimated half of students dropped out and basic student safety was neglected before the first charter schools were allowed to open in the District. High-school graduation rates and standardized test scores have improved in DCPS as well, since the traditional system was placed under mayoral control 10 years ago.
The reform of DCPS and the 22-year-old charter reform have reversed decades of enrollment decline. Previously, only families with financial resources to choose alternatives to substandard schools. Now parents and guardians have choice regardless of income.
At a time when the city is enjoying a record budget surplus, it is right that we invest in both the future of the newcomers who have come to raise families here and long-established residents, many of whom live in neighborhoods that have been neglected for decades. Let’s hope this latest investment — fairly distributed between charters and DCPS as it is — becomes a trend to build upon.
Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools (dcacps.org).