Kent Withycombe Testimony – At-Risk School Funding and School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Acts of 2019 – June 26, 2019

WLC

Kent Withycombe, Education Justice Project Director

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs 

Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia

  For the June 26, 2019 Joint Public Hearing on:

(1) B23-0239:  School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019; and

(2) B23-0046:  At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

I.               Introduction

Thank you Council Chairman Mendelson, Education Committee Chairman Grosso, and all Councilmembers for this opportunity to testify.  I am Kent Withycombe, from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, where I work to advance education justice in DC.

Since the late 1970s, the Committee has been committed to fighting for equity in the D.C. schools.  In particular we have focused our advocacy, particularly for families of color that come from neighborhoods that we as a city have historically deprived of resources and support.[1]

We are committed to ensuring every student’s right to an excellent public education.   Budget, planning and transparency issues are inherently civil rights issues, as they all must be done with a keen eye towards actually achieving equity and providing quality opportunities for students in all of our public schools.

Community input is a critical component of ensuring that DCPS and the public charter school LEAs are accountable to the students and parents that they serve.  Transparency into the operations of these schools and how they make decisions about budgeting and planning allows community members to provide meaningful input.  We support the intent of many provisions in the School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act, as it intends to give more local control over budgets to Principals and their school communities, and it applies DC’s open meetings laws to all public schools.   However, we recommend that the law also require each Local Education Agency to comply with the District of Columbia’s Freedom of Information Act.   We also support and urge the Council to pass the At Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act provisions, as it also gives more local control over budgeting to schools, and it will increase transparency and accountability to ensure that DC public schools are using At Risk funds for the direct benefit of their students who are living in acute poverty.

II.  The School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

Access to information by advocates, journalists, school communities and voters strengthens the District’s schools, improves policy and practice, and helps expose misconduct, waste, and inefficiency.  Investigations into school operations demonstrate the value of subjecting all of DC’s public schools to open meetings and public records requirements.

We learned, for example, from the press, advocates, and teachers that DCPS attendance and graduation rates at Ballou and other schools were actually far below what they were initially reported to be, exposing deep inequities in the quality of education that some students were receiving.

Conversely, at Chavez Prep Public Charter school, which is not currently subject to open meeting laws, teachers, parents and students were kept in the dark about school finances, the plans to consolidate schools, and then the ultimate decision to close Chavez Prep.  The community had little opportunity for input or recourse.

The School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act will achieve better transparency for stakeholders and policymakers to evaluate schools and the quality and equity of educational experiences that those schools provide.  It will provide opportunities for communities to monitor their schools and provide input at key junctures.

However, the Act does not go far enough, and we are particularly concerned that this Act does not require charter school LEAs to comply with the D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act.  This mechanism is necessary to ensure meaningful public accountability.  This bill should require that all LEAs comply with FOIA, just as Councilmember Allen’s Transparency Bill does.   Making charter LEAs subject to the same FOIA requirements that DCPS is subject to is critical, as it will increase transparency and accountability to school communities and build trust.   Ensuring broad public access to the same types of information across all of our public schools is key in understanding, assessing, and closing the persistent achievement and opportunity gaps among students, particularly with respect to students of color, our At-Risk student populations, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners.  The National Research Council’s 2015 Evaluation of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia repeatedly emphasized this point.[2]

DC’s exemption of charter schools from public accountability laws like FOIA is out of step with national norms.  National charter organizations endorse compliance with public records requests as Best Practices.[3]  Moreover, representatives of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told the Washington Post that DC’s charter sector was unusual in not being subject to public records requests as compared to the rest of the country.[4]

In fact, 39 states require all schools to comply with public records requests.  Research by In the Public Interest found that this vast majority of states, including both Maryland and Virginia, require operators or schools to hold open board meetings or post minutes of board meetings, and to respond to requests for public records.[5]  Most recently, California adopted this year a measure that would subject all of California’s 1,300 charter schools to open meetings laws and public records requests.

While the PCSB recently made some transparency improvements, they do not go far enough to provide the kind and variety of types of information that parents, school communities and advocates need to create true accountability.  Nor do these changes provide the depth and breadth of information that would be available through FOIA requests.[6]  We cannot rely on PCSB to be the gatekeepers of information for publicly funded charter schools.

Responding to FOIA requests should not be a significant financial or time burden for charter LEAs.  The DC Public Charter School Board has not been inundated with FOIA requests.  Between October 1, 2017, and September 30, 2018, the DC Public Charter School Board received 74 requests for information, with 59 processed within 15 days, and the rest in more than 16 days.[7]  The total cost for the PCSB to comply with FOIA requests during that year was $22,600.  For smaller charter LEAs who need assistance in responding, the bill can follow the lead of Councilmember Allen’s Public School Transparency Act and direct the PCSB to assist Charter LEAs when needed in responding to FOIA requests.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee supports the School Based Budgeting provisions that will give Principals and their school communities more autonomy to allocate their local dollars and the ability to build their budgets based on their students’ needs, rather than DCPS Central Office mandates.

This Act can significantly improve transparency over two areas of expenditures that are currently obscured in school budgets.  First, the Act should require charter schools to disclose all contracts rather than only contracts for more than $25,000.  The current formulation allows schools and contractors to divide up contracts to avoid disclosure.  For example, a $48,000 contract for goods and services could be split into $24,000 for goods, and $24,000 for services, and neither would have to be disclosed under the proposed legislation.

Second, the bill should require charter schools to publicly report employee salaries.  Councilmember Allen’s bill requires publishing all charter teacher salaries, as DCPS is required to do.  At a minimum, charter schools should disclose st year salaries, 5th year, 10th year salaries and average teacher salaries, so that teachers will have reliable compensation information to drive their choices about where to work and so that parents and education advocates will be able to compare each year how much schools and LEAs are spending on teachers versus administrators and other expenses. [8]

Overall, the Committee supports the following provisions and strongly encourages that the Council strengthen the remainder of the proposed legislation:

  1. Require both the Public Charter School Board and individual charter schools to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act, including the Open Meetings Act.[9]
  2. Urge all public schools to use similar definitions and line-items in their budgeting.
  3. Require charter schools to publicize not just their budgets, but also their expenditures.
  4. Require charter schools to delineate how At-Risk Funds are being spent.
  5. Require that the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) publish school budget expenditure information in a way that ensures the public can compare expenditures by LEA and by school in a clear manner.[10]
  6. Require DCPS to use a school-based budgeting model to fund schools, as opposed to the comprehensive staffing model, and submit that to the DC Council.

II.              At Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee is in favor of the At -Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act.   Reliable, targeted and adequate At-Risk funding is a significant way to improve education equity in the public schools of DC.   Schools need an At-Risk supplement that is fully funded to meet the needs of the community.  The current At-Risk supplement, about $2,400 per student, is 40 percent lower than the Deputy Mayor for Education’s 2013 Education Adequacy Study recommendations.[11]   In addition to the improvements incorporated by the proposed legislation, the Council should also increase the amount of the per student At-Risk funding.

The transparency and accountability provisions will help to achieve three important equity goals:

  1. Giving principals and school communities more voice in how At-Risk funds are used;
  2. Requiring the collection of information on how At-Risk funds are used that will assist in evaluating the impacts of this funding on student outcomes; and
  3. Ensuring that At-Risk funds are used to supplement, rather than supplant, school-based spending and services, which is a persistent problem that both the DC Auditor and Mary Levy have studied and reported in recent years.[12]

The Act accomplishes these goals by shifting spending decisions for At-Risk funding from DC Public Schools’ Central Office to principals and school communities, as principals must consult with Local School Advisory Teams on how at-risk funds should be used.

It also adds new reporting requirements for all public schools receiving At-Risk funds so that parents, the public and the Council can better track how the At-Risk funds are used and if they are effective at improving educational outcomes for At-Risk students at that school.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

In summary, the Committee supports the intent of the School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act, as it intends to give more local control over budgets to Principals and their school communities, and it increase transparency into the operation of our public charter schools.  We recommend that the law also require each Local Education Agency in DC to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, just as DCPS is required to do.

We also support and urge the Council to pass the At Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act, as it also gives more local control over budgeting to schools, and it will increase transparency and accountability to ensure that DC public schools are using At Risk funds for the direct benefit of their students who are living in acute poverty.

[1] The Washington Lawyers’ Committee was founded in 1968 to address civil rights violations, racial injustice and poverty-related issues in our community through litigation and other advocacy.  The Committee has a long history of working to address racial and other inequity in the DC public schools, which includes its Parent Empowerment Program and its School Partnerships among law firms, businesses and more than 55 DCPS Title I schools.  We work closely with the private bar to bring litigation, pursue policy initiatives and support the academic enrichment and other goals of our DC public school communities.

[2]http://sites.nationalacademies.org/dbasse/BOTA/Evaluation_of_the_Public_Schools_of_the_District_of_Columbia/index.htm

Page 3-20:  Public access to comprehensive data across DCPS and all the charter LEAs in the city would support tracking and analysis of key information about schools and students, particularly with respect to students with disabilities and English-language learners.

Page 3-27; Conclusion 3-3:   Accountability to the public requires that information about administrative operations be transparent and easily accessible and that mechanisms be available for DC residents to express their preferences and concerns.

Pages 7-13 to 7-14;  Recommendation 3:  the primary objective of the District of Columbia for its public schools should be to address the serious and persistent disparities in learning opportunities and academic progress across student groups and wards by attending to [a]cessible, useful, and transparent data about D.C. public schools that are tailored to the diverse groups with a stake in the system.

[3] See Recommendations and Model Laws by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schoolshttps://www.qualitycharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/NACSA-Principles-and-Standards-2018-Edition.pdf ;

https://www.publiccharters.org/sites/default/files/migrated/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/ModelLaw_P7-wCVR_20110402T222341.pdf

[4]  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/should-dc-charter-schools-follow-the-same-rules-as-traditional-campuses/2019/02/04/544cfb36-2644-11e9-81fd-b7b05d5bed90_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6ee9b1ee6afb

[5] https://www.inthepublicinterest.org/d-c-s-charter-school-transparency-policies-fall-short-of-nationwide-state-level-standards/

[6]  On March 18, board members voted on the DC Public Charter School Board’s new transparency changes, which would require individual schools to publish, among other things, which meetings are open to the public, board meeting minutes, the salaries of the five highest-compensated individuals, employee handbooks, and funding plans for at-risk students.  https://www.dcpcsb.org/public-comment/notice-new-policy-school-transparency-policy-reopened-public-comment . Some of the information that the DC Public Charter School Board is proposing that schools publish on their own websites is already available on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Transparency Hub, which launched last April.  https://www.dcpcsb.org/transparency

[7]  See The District’s Annual FOIA Report: https://os.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/os/page_content/attachments/FOAI%20FY18%20Annual%20Report%20updated%202.25.19.pdf

[8] https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/city-desk/article/21045319/dc-charter-administrators-have-some-of-the-highest-school-salaries-in-town-their-teachers-some-of-the-lowest

[9] National charter organizations endorse compliance with open meetings laws as Best Practices.  See Recommendations and Model Laws by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

[10] This gives parents and policymakers clear information and allows stakeholders to see across all schools how tax dollars are being spent.  This is done in several large school districts around the country, such as L.A Unified School District, which publishes the entire budget of every school (more than 500 schools) that advocates and school communities can compare and digest.  See http://projects.scpr.org/applications/lausd-2014-2015-school-by-school-budgets/  and  https://achieve.lausd.net/cms/lib/CA01000043/Centricity/Domain/123/25_2019-20%20Superintendents%20Final%20Budget%20Online%20Combined_nopg.pdf

[11] DC Deputy Mayor for Education’s 2013 Education Adequacy Study at 116-117.

[12] See http://dcauditor.org/report/budgeting-and-staffing-at-eight-dcps-elementary-schools/ at iii and 61-63; and  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-is-misspending-millions-of-dollars-intended-to-help-the-citys-poorest-students/2018/04/14/6006c02a-3788-11e8-9c0a-85d477d9a226_story.html?utm_term=.ba26c5171293

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