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

Committee on Whole and Education

Joint Public Hearing

At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

and

School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

            Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.  My name is Suzanne Wells.  I am the president of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization.  Both bills that are the subject of today’s hearing are intended to address important issues regarding providing meaningful services to at-risk youth, and greater understanding of how school budgets are allocated.

The At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act shines a spotlight on how at-risk funds are used by schools, and seeks to ensure the at-risk funds are used in ways that are expected to improve student achievement.  Much of the impetus for this bill was the recognition that at-risk funds were being used for purposes not directly related to supporting at-risk youth.

I believe the reasons at-risk funds often don’t appear to support at-risk youth are two-fold.  First, it shows how tight school budgets are, and the schools often don’t have sufficient dollars to fund the staffing positions they need or want to provide for their students.  Second, research-based evidence as to what will be impactful in raising performance among at-risk youth is limited, and often not available to and/or considered by schools as budget decisions are made.

Last school year, I served on the Eliot-Hine Middle School Local School Advisory Team (LSAT).  We had at-risk funds, and we considered research compiled by Betsy Wolf, an assistant professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University.  Dr. Wolf’s review of the research found technology approaches have shown promise in being impactful for middle grades.  Our LSAT discussed whether we should use at-risk funds to purchase computers and software for small-group instruction for at-risk students.  Or should we use the funds to hire a reading specialist or fund some type of social emotional learning?  Our choices weren’t clear cut, and the only thing that was clear was that we didn’t have enough funding to do all we thought should be done to support all the students.

I encourage the Council to consider whether the At-Risk School Funding Bill could include requirements for some entity to compile research informed best practices for improving at-risk student achievement so this information can be shared with local schools when budgets are developed.

While I believe it is important to measure whether the at-risk funding is supporting improved student achievement among at-risk youth, I am concerned about the provision in the bill that requires the Chancellor to produce an annual report that shows over the previous five years whether the at-risk funding has improved performance among at-risk youth.  I fear this will devolve into excessive scrutiny of the at-risk youth’s test scores as a way to justify budget choices, and won’t actually help the at-risk youth the bill is intended to help.

Regarding the School Based Budgeting and Transparency Act, I will defer to others with more budget expertise than I have to provide comments on budget transparency aspects of the bill.  I applaud the bill’s requirement that the Board of Trustees for each public charter school must comply with the Open Meetings Act.

What the bill lacks is a requirement that the public charter schools comply with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  FOIA plays an important role in keeping our government transparent and accountable, and has been used to expose a wide range of government misconduct and waste.  Without FOIA there is a trend towards secrecy.  We live in an open society, and no fear of burden on the part of the pubic charter schools outweighs the benefits of keeping them transparent and accountable.  I encourage the Council to add to the bill a requirement that the individual public charter schools comply with FOIA.

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