We had been fighting for nearly three years when a U.S. District Judge ruled against our lawsuit accusing the District of continuously underfunding the nearly 39,000 children who attend public charter schools in our nation’s capital. We haven't given up fighting, but for no, the 47 percent of D.C. public school students who attend charter schools are still getting shortchanged.
As the co-founder and CEO of Eagle Academy Public Charter School, the first exclusively early childhood charter school in the District, I teamed up with the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools and Washington Latin Public Charter Schools to demand that the city provide D.C. charter schools the same amount of funding as it affords to traditional D.C. Public Schools, as the law requires.
At the heart of our lawsuit is the School Reform Act of 1995, which established public charter schools in the District of Columbia. The law requires that students who attend public charter schools receive the same level of educational funding from local revenues, calculated on a per-student basis, as students who attend traditional public schools. The idea behind this requirement was to ensure all public school students in the District receive equal protection and resources from the government. Unfortunately, due to D.C. Council laws, the city spends on average $1,600 - $2,600 less in educational funding for each D.C. charter school student every year than it spends on his or her DCPS counterparts.
Like traditional public schools in the District, charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free, and open to all resident children. Although charters are run by nonprofits and have control of their own curricula, they are subject to rigorous oversight by the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which is made up of members appointed by the D.C. mayor. Every year, the Public Charter School Board evaluates the academic performance of every public charter school in the District. In order to continue operating, all public charter schools must demonstrate academic success. If the Board decides a charter is not achieving positive educational outcomes, it has the authority to close the school.
To meet these high standards, charter schools rely on city funding to provide the highest quality education to its students. Unfortunately, over the years charter schools have routinely received less funding than traditional public schools. Every dollar that is withheld from these students translates into one less opportunity they can pursue, or one less lesson they will be able to learn.
One of the ways the city has been able to shortchange charter schools is through its enrollment calculations. DCPS gets funds based on projected (and often inflated) student enrollment, while reducing funding to D.C. charter schools if actual enrollment is lower than projected. DCPS is paid in one lump sum in July, at the beginning of the school year, and does not have to submit to an external audit. Charter schools, in contrast, are paid quarterly, based on an external audited enrollment.
Another way is through supplemental funding, whereby the city provides traditional public schools with funding for their operating expenses and subsidized services, without any corresponding compensation to charters. The result of these practices is not surprising, even to the District itself. A study commissioned by the District Government and another study by an independent foundation found that funding of DCPS and D.C. charter schools was inequitable.
Serving a student population comprising nearly 84 percent economically disadvantaged students, D.C. charter schools rely on city funding to help students reach their full potential in and outside the classroom. Research has shown that D.C.’s public charter schools outperform traditional public schools in math, science, reading, and composition, and also boast higher graduation rates. Charter schools in the District are offering some of the most vulnerable and underprivileged children opportunities to succeed, and it is time to stop inhibiting this potential.
The Court’s decision will not mark the end of our drive to ensure the nearly half of D.C. public school children who attend charters are treated fairly.
Dr. Joe Smith is co-Founder and CEO of Eagle Academy Public Charter School Washington D.C.
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