Agency Budget Hearing, Fiscal Year 2015, DC Public Schools

Testimony of Bonnie O’Keefe, Senior Policy Analyst, DC Action for Children

Agency Budget Hearing for Fiscal Year 2015

District of Columbia Public Schools

Before the Committee on Education 

Council of the District of Columbia

April 17, 2014

Good morning, Committee Chairman Catania and members of the Committee on Education. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council as it reviews the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). My name is Bonnie O’Keefe, I am a senior policy analyst at DC Action for Children. 

DC Action for Children (“DC Action”) provides data-based analysis and policy leadership on critical issues facing DC children and youth, to promote policies and actions that optimize child and family well-being. 

DC Action is the home of DC KIDS COUNT, which tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being in the DC neighborhoods where children live, learn and grow. We work closely with city agencies, the school system and service providers to share the most accurate and timely data, along with clear and accessible analysis. Our advocacy agenda is based on these data.

The Public Needs to Know Where Funds for At-Risk Students Are Going

Several times over the past year, we have testified to this Committee on the importance of aligning school budgets to the educational needs of students, and supporting students most in danger of dropping out with evidence-based solutions. For that reason, we were happy to see that some of the recommendations of 2013’s Education Adequacy Study and the Fair Student Funding Act were reflected in this year’s DCPS budget and per-student funding formula. The study and the act showed both data-driven and popular support for a substantial investment in the educational future of DC’s at-risk children and youth.   

The $44.5 million “at-risk” funding proposed for DCPS has the potential to meaningfully change outcomes for foster, homeless, overage, TANF- and SNAP-receiving students and we commend DCPS and the Mayor for this strong step in the right direction.

We do have concerns about insufficient public communication and transparency by DCPS as to where these funds will be going, how they will be used to support at-risk students at each school and why those solutions were chosen.  We understand that this first year of implementation of the Fair Student Funding Act is a challenge.  DCPS was required to follow the recently enacted rule that school budgets cannot change more than 5% year to year and incorporate the new at-risk weight, other changes to the UPSFF and the annual scramble to create school budgets. But, transitioning to a system where principals are empowered to create at-risk plans that address the needs of their at-risk students is critical to the success of our students and it is the law. The central aim of an at-risk weight is that those funds will follow the students to the school level. If they do not, parents and taxpayers need to know why. 

We do not doubt that many district-wide initiatives, such as the push for middle school improvement, will benefit many at-risk students, but DCPS needs to make that argument, especially to the schools whose budgets did not see the gains they would expect given their at-risk populations of students.    

Budget Format Transparency is a Step Forward

On the subject of budget transparency, we’d like to express our support for the new, expanded format of the DCPS budget. For many years, advocates at the school and city level have said that the budget categories and line items presented in the budget books bore little resemblance to how DCPS actually spends, and gave no clues to school-level investments. The new, more detailed format is an enormous improvement that will become even more valuable in future years once we are able to compare changes over time at the school level. 

Attendance, Early Literacy and Extended School Days are Important Focus Areas for Struggling Elementary Schools

The first years of school, from Pre-K to third grade, build the foundations of future success for students. Low-performing elementary schools do not set students up for success in middle school, high school and beyond, which is why focusing on elementary school success is so critical. 

  • In 60 percent of all of DCPS elementary schools, and in all but one elementary school in Wards 7 and 8, the majority of students are not reading and doing math at grade level.
  • 56 percent of third grade students in DCPS were not reading at grade level last year, and 20 percent scored below-basic on the DC-CAS in reading.
  • Achievement gaps in the elementary grades are among the widest in the nation: DCPS has a 68 point score gap between black and white students in fourth grade reading NAEP assessments.*  

We’d like to hear from DCPS how they are taking this information and translating it into action for the next school year.

For DCPS’s lowest performing elementary schools, the majority of which are located in high-poverty areas, there is no silver bullet that will guarantee instant success. But, there are common-sense strategies that can create sustained improvements. One of these is access to high-quality early education, which DCPS is working towards with the support of the Head Start blended model in all Title I early education programs. Others include targeted reading interventions, extended school days and family engagement/professional development around attendance, all of which DCPS mentions in the FY15 budget. This is great news, but like the at-risk funds, what matters most is how those priorities are implemented: 

  • If strategies will vary at the school level, what support will school leaders get to contract with the most effective literacy or afterschool providers, or to develop their own programs? 
  • How can we measure the impact of these initiatives at individual schools and expand on what works? 
  • How will extended days be used to provide high-quality learning experiences with that additional time?
  • How will elementary schools, and especially early childhood programs, be supported by the proposed budget to continuously improve?

Conclusion

DCPS has come a long way and improved impressively in many areas, but there is still a long way to go, particularly in terms of equity for at-risk students who will benefit the most from high-quality educational support. Closing achievement gaps, increasing reading proficiency and graduation rates and improving family confidence in the school system all depend on smart investments and implementation decisions made during this budget process. We urge DCPS officials to use this as a time to hear feedback from community members and policymakers, and to be as transparent as possible.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.

 

*National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). District of Columbia Public Schools NAEP TUDA 4th grade reading report card.  

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