It’s budget season in DC and the Washington Post recently ran this story about how DC schools are funded.
The piece described how charters are paid based on actual enrollment, while DCPS is paid based on estimates:
Also, charter schools are paid according to their actual audited enrollment. But traditional schools are funded based on projected enrollments, which tend to be overly optimistic. FOCUS estimates that the school system received $142 million between 2009 and 2013 for students it did not actually enroll.
For years, school system officials have maintained that the cushion helps them deal with an influx of students, many from charter schools, who come after enrollment counts are finalized in October. Unlike charter schools, traditional schools are legally obligated to serve all students — just one of many ways in which the two sectors operate under different rules.
When I first started at PCSB I was told that "thousands" of students flowed into DCPS each year after the enrollment count, and hence the over estimation was somehow justified as paying for students who arrive mid-year.
While it’s true that students do transition between schools mid-year, these numbers have been greatly overblown. But while thousands of students enter DCPS mid-year (3,697 to be exact), thousands leave mid-year as well (3,359 students). According to this mobility study by the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE), the net gain in DCPS mid-year for the most recent school year was just 338 students. We could fully reimburse DCPS for these mid-year students for about $3M per year, but the overestimation adds up to ten times this amount!
The facts are clear: the supposed influx of thousands of students is in reality a few hundred, and the funding cushion is at least ten times larger than it needs to be to accommodate for those students that switch schools.
What we need, and need urgently, is to fundamentally revise the payment process. Both charters and DCPS should be paid based on actual numbers. And rather than rely on a single count of students in October to set the payment, there should be multiple counts throughout the year to ensure that schools who add students are properly compensated. This is common sense reform that ensures equality and proper incentives.
As an aside, the OSSE mobility study is worth looking at closely because it bursts so many myths. For example, of the 3,697 who entered DCPS mid-year, just 561 transferred from a charter school. Indeed most students who leave charter schools mid-year do so because they are moving out of state.