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Betsy Wolf Testimony – DCPS Public Budget Hearing for FY20 – November 27, 2018

My name is Betsy Wolf. I am a parent at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in DCPS. Amidon-Bowen serves a predominantly “at-risk” and African American student population and has been one of the lowest performing schools in the city for more than a decade.

I am also a research professor in education. A common finding in school finance is that schools serving poorer children get more resources when you factor in money spent on special education. But when you take out the money spent on special education and account for the fact that high-poverty schools often have higher rates of special education students, studies often find that jurisdictions actually spend less per pupil in schools serving disadvantaged children than in schools serving affluent children.

We see the same trend in DC when looking at budgeted expenditures (not actual, budgeted) for FY 2019. When you look at total expenditures, it looks like schools serving disadvantaged children get more resources. But when you take out special education, spending is no longer equitable. In fact, there are many schools serving predominantly affluent children that get more resources than Amidon-Bowen: Our city spends $3,000 more PER PUPIL on general INSTRUCTION at Cooke Elementary School in Ward 1 than at Amidon-Bowen. We spend $2,800 more PER PUPIL at Ross Elementary in Ward 2 than at Amidon-Bowen. We spend $1,150 more PER PUPIL at Stoddert Elementary in Ward 3 than at Amidon-Bowen. The list goes on.

This inequitable spending seems problematic given the stated focus on equity and narrowing the achievement gap. We can’t narrow the achievement gap if we’re giving less to students who need more. If we want to narrow the achievement gap, we have to be much more intentional about targeting instructional supports to at-risk kids.

Research shows that the biggest-bang-for-your-buck in improving student performance is small-group tutoring. Small-group tutoring can be implemented by trained paraprofessionals or reading specialists. Last year was the first school year that Amidon-Bowen employed both a reading specialist and a math intervention coach, and we were “gifted” one of these positions because we didn’t have enough money in our initial school budget allocation to afford it. And in part due to these staff members, last year Amidon-Bowen showed good gains in both reading and math. But we’re at risk of losing these key positions every year.

While our school needs a reading special and math coach, we also need to provide our students with a well-rounded education. We are fortunate to be able to supplement reading and math, but children in more affluent schools are also benefitting from enrichments such as science teachers, often paid for by the PTA. As many of you know, last year, we could no longer afford our STEM teacher, and our STEM teacher moved to a more affluent school in NW where the PTA pays his salary. This is not a picture of equity.

If I may, here are some recommendations for improving equity moving forward:

1. Find a way to allocate more flexible at-risk funds to schools. Don’t force schools to use at-risk funds to cover personnel to meet IEP requirements.
2. Research differences in enrichments across schools, paid for out of school budgets and PTAs, and seek to understand if there are gaps in equity. If there are gaps between low- and high-poverty schools, work to address them.
3. Consider how staffing will change at a school from one year to the next. Starting from scratch each year in budgeting produces negative consequences, and in a recent survey, principals cited instability in staffing as a key stressor for them.
4. Acknowledge the limitations of the current system. There is deep public mistrust because truthfulness is lacking.
5. Engage local communities. I don’t mean “community engagement” check-the-box events such as this one. I mean real conversations with parents and teachers on the ground.

Research speaks to policy as intended versus policy in practice. You must better understand how your policies unfold at the school level. At the same time, we need to understand the constraints and choices that you face in making decisions. School improvement is hard, and we’re not going to crack this nut working in isolation from one another.

From DCPS data center: At-risk allocations for Amidon-Bowen were:

FY19: $30,250
FY18: $128,980
FY17: $486,540
FY16: $472,870

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