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Accelerate DC Public School Improvement Through Charter-Like Autonomy

Budgeting control, choice, competition, and weighted student funding formula increase school performance

Katie Furtick
September 3, 2013

In 2013, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) students in traditional public schools and charter schools made significant academic gains, giving validation to DCPS's ongoing school reform efforts. Test score data from the 2013 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System shows that in traditional public schools students improved their proficiency in math and reading by 3.6 percentage points and 3.9 percentage points respectively, bringing proficiency rates to 49.5 percent for math and 47.4 percent for reading. Charter schools in the district have improved even more, with a 58.6 percent proficiency rate in math and 53 percent proficiency rate in reading. These scores reflect rapid improvement from the pre-reform performance of 2007 when district proficiency rates in reading (34.7 percent proficient) and math (28.5 percent proficient) were less than 35 percent. 

The higher performance of DCPS's charter schools helps make a compelling case that more should be done to offer all DC schools more charter-like autonomies so school leaders can use resources to make decisions that best meet the needs of their students. Charter schools doing so well on reading and math tests give principals more autonomy and the ability to use their budget authority to drive instructional change, such as implementing new programs tailored to their student's needs. 

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson in conjunction with DC Mayor Vincent Gray, and DC Council member David Catania (I-At Large) have proposed two competing plans that aggressively try to solve existing problems in Washington, DC's public school system. 

The Henderson-Gray plan has a strong leaning towards charter schools, which have grown in popularity and now enroll 43 percent of the city's students. Their plan aims to give Schools Chancellor Henderson chartering authority - the legal power to open new charter schools and turn existing schools into charters - in order to attract successful charter school operators and to turn around chronically low-performing traditional schools. The proposal would also allow charters in "high need" areas to become neighborhood schools. These schools would continue to operate with the same independence as existing charters - with control over budgets, curricula and staff - but would allow students living nearby to attend without having to enter into a lottery. 

Catania's proposal seeks to give the chancellor a similar ability to open schools free from municipal regulations and union contracts by opening "innovation schools." These schools would operate similarly to charter schools, but stop short of giving chartering authority to the chancellor. In addition, Catania proposes giving every school more charter-like autonomy, including:

Both plans have the potential to help DC public schools continue on a path toward increased student achievement and could be reconciled by implementing student-based budgeting. Student-based budgeting is a shift from funding institutions by staffing positions to more equitably funding schools on a per-pupil basis through a weighted student formula where money follows each child to the school of their choice. This funding formula makes funding more equitable among students, but also between traditional public and charter schools. Forthcoming research from the University of Arkansas analyzed five cities in the US - Denver, CO, Los Angeles, CA, Milwaukee, WI, Newark, NJ, and Washington, DC where at least one in every 10 students attends a public charter school. The study found that charter school students received an average of $4,000 less for their education than peers in traditional public schools. Also, of the five regions analyzed, Washington, DC had the largest disparity in public school district school versus charter school funding - an average difference of more than $10,000 in 2011. 

Per-student funding through a weighted student formula is one way to level the playing field between charter schools and traditional schools. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a new statewide school funding plan that equalizes funding between all schools based on a simple and transparent weighted student formula and increases equity between public charter schools and traditional public schools.

In addition to more equitably funding students, the funding formula gives traditional schools more charter-like authority over their budgets and staffing, and delivers more budget transparency and student performance metrics. 

Currently, DCPS uses a Comprehensive Staffing Model (CPS) which determines school budgets based on staffing positions and the average cost of staff salaries. The number of teachers, and therefore the amount of school funding, is determined by the central office by projected student enrollment and mandated student-to-teacher ratios at each grade level. In addition, unless petitioned, there are several required staff positions at every school such as an educational aid, school psychologist, or counselor.  

This clunky one-size-fits-all model is inequitable and leaves gross disparities in school finances, especially between lower-enrollment schools and higher-enrollment schools. For example, the DCPS 2012-13 budget development guide states that high schools must have one guidance counselor for every 250 students. In this case, a school with 250 students and a school with 499 students would both be allowed only one guidance counselor and allotted the same average cost of a guidance counselor's salary - forcing the school with 499 students to stretch those dollars much more than the school with 250 students. 

In an attempt to close the chasm in school funding, DCPS mandates a per-pupil funding minimum of $8,568. But according to the DCPS 2012 Budget Guide, there is still a disparity between large-enrollment and small-enrollment school per-pupil spending.  

Soumya Bhat, an education finance and policy analyst for the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, gave testimony weighing the pros and cons of weighted student formula versus the traditional Comprehensive Staffing Model. Bhat stated that "[the staffing model] allocates funds that may not reflect individual student's needs within a school's population," and that "school leaders generally have less autonomy and the framework can also vary from year-to-year, leaving schools with unanticipated staffing reductions, seen in the past budget season."

With weighted student formula, schools are funded on a per-pupil basis with each student being given a base amount of funding, and additional allotments of funding based on their individual needs. For example, Houston Independent School District's weighted student formula gives each student a base allocation with additional funding for gifted students, English-language learners, special education students, and low-income students. 

Catania's proposal for DCPS uses a weighted student formula to allocate additional funds for low-income students, students enrolled in vocational programs, and students attending schools with low graduation rates. If additional weights were considered, funding would more readily be available to a diverse set of student needs, in addition to low-income students. 

Other important components needed to maximize the effectiveness of weighted student formula are principal autonomy over finances and programs, accountability, and school choice. Catania's proposals mostly cover each of these components. 

If passed, for example, principals would have direct control over 80 percent of school funding. With greater autonomy over financial resources, money would be allocated far more effectively because principals know firsthand exactly how funds should be distributed to best suit the needs of their unique student bodies.  Also, the DCPS chancellor would be given the authority to open charter-like "innovation schools" free from certain city regulations, specifically union contracts - but only if teachers agree. 

The legislation should give all DCPS principals greater autonomy over hiring and firing decisions. The 2008 DC reforms established a process by which principals are now able to eliminate excess staff positions, including Washington Teachers Union positions, but the process for doing so is burdensome. A 2013 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality finds that more than any other type of authority, principals report wanting more say over the staffing in their schools. 

In turn for being given greater autonomy, principals must be held accountable for student performance.  Student-based budgeting puts in place solid accountability measures to identify and strengthen underperforming schools. Catania's plan establishes that if a school does not meet a specified level of student achievement, the school's principal is asked to develop a turnaround plan. If the school then fails at meeting improvement targets, the DCPS Chancellor would have the right to close the school, turn it over to an outside operator, or turn it into an innovation school.  Holding principals accountable for student outcomes ensures that they make administrative decisions that are designed to best fit students' needs. 

Finally, Catania's proposal requires the Office of the State Superintended of Education to adopt a unified lottery for traditional and charter schools beginning in 2015-16. In addition to adopting a unified lottery, which means DCPS public schools and charter schools would have a common application for entering a single lottery, DCPS should allow full school choice throughout the district. This would mean that parents can send their students to any school within the district rather than being confined to their neighborhood school. Paired with per-pupil funding, schools would have to compete to garner students and their accompanying funds. The element of competition could help the quality of DC schools to rise in an attempt to attract students armed with expanded autonomy over where they choose to seek their educations.  In other districts that have implemented the school choice component of weighted student formula many low-performing schools made rapid improvements because they needed to retain and attract students.

Steps have already been taken to fix DCPS's broken school system, but it is clear that problems stemming partially from inequities in student funding still exist. While schools reaching the 50 percent proficiency milestone is significant in the context of DCPS's historical student performance, there is clearly more work to be done. The best case scenario for DC public schools would be a plan that offers DC Chancellor Kaya Henderson more chartering authority while also offering all DC public schools the chance to prove they can raise student outcomes if they have autonomy and control over school resources.  If DCPS were to implement weighted student formula and each necessary accompanying component, students would receive more equitable funding and school administrators would have clear incentives to help their students succeed. Adopting these reforms would help ensure that every child in our nation's capital is given the chance to receive a quality education.  

Katie Furtick is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation. 


Katie Furtick is Policy Analyst


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