Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole at the Budget Hearing on the District’s Education Agencies

Apr 5, 2023

Good morning Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee. My name is Ariel Johnson, and I’m the Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates for the 46,000 public charter school students in the district.

I’ll get right to the point. Budgets demonstrate values. And the values being demonstrated in Mayor Bowser’s budget proposal is that half of the District’s children and the educators serving them do not matter as much as the other half.

Nine out of every 10 students the public charter sector serves are Black or Brown. Eight in 10 live in Wards 4, 5, 7, or 8. And almost 23,000 children—nearly half—are designated “at risk” of academic failure.

That Mayor Bowser finds it acceptable to shortchange charter schools a total of $187 million to meet those children’s needs—including more than three times the amount of funding to raise educator salaries—is outrageous.

Suppose this deeply inequitable budget proposal is allowed to stand. In that case, the District will be endorsing separate and unequal education systems—while expecting both systems to continue achieving the same outcomes for students. I’m here today to urge you to reject this education budget that disregards half of the city’s students and the educators that serve them.

Major Policy Shift in How the City Funds Education

Let me start by addressing a problematic and sudden change in how the city funds education. The Universal Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF) is essential in ensuring schools can support students and their specific needs, regardless of whether they choose their neighborhood school, an out-of-boundary DCPS school, or a charter school. And yet, for the second year in a row, the Mayor’s budget provides millions and millions of dollars outside the formula, the majority of which is not made available to charter schools.

Let’s consider IMPACT bonuses, for example. Last year the budget provided more than $19 million, and this year provides $22 million, to DCPS. No equivalent funds are available to charter schools, even though our schools have similar evaluation systems and associated costs.

The city has provided no justification or transparency about why it made this sudden, major policy shift impacting charter schools. These dramatic shifts are turning public charter schools into a second-class education system that will undermine our community if allowed to continue.

Vast Disparity in Educator Compensation Between Sectors

Let me explain why. We know that retaining and recruiting high-quality educators is the number one factor in students’ academic recovery and achievement. But to do that, charter schools must offer competitive compensation packages. The Mayor’s proposed budget provides $148 million less to charter schools than DCPS outside the formula to provide staff raises. DCPS is receiving more than three times the amount of funding than charter schools.

Additionally, charter schools will only be allowed to use the funding the budget provides to raise salaries for teachers—not social workers, therapists, counselors or psychologists, instructional coaches, speech and language pathologists, or attendance officers. DCPS has no such restrictions.

At a time when research shows young people nationwide—particularly adolescent girls—are in a mental health crisis, it is unconscionable that this budget treats the mental health needs of charter school students as somehow less important than DCPS students.

To add insult to injury, charter schools will be required to jump through administrative hoops by applying for an OSSE grant with conditions to publish teacher pay scales and complete data reporting on teacher retention, vacancies, and effectiveness. Charter schools already report retention, vacancies, and effectiveness to OSSE annually. And, charter schools already report salary data to the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB) and it’s publicly available in LEA audits.

There’s also no guarantee of the precise amount of funding or when this funding will be made available. Meanwhile, DCPS is receiving guaranteed one-time retroactive payments and salary increases for the upcoming fiscal year. Retroactive payments have already started going out to DCPS staff as of last week. And school year 2023-24 salary increases will be automatically provided to DCPS staff without any additional administrative burdens on the LEA.

Finally, these charter grants are one-time only, while DCPS increases are guaranteed to be funded in future years. The Mayor’s team has indicated these grant funds must be used for cost-of-living increases to base salaries, and the DME has asserted the Executive’s intent that “these salary increases across both sectors will be reflected in the UPSFF” starting in FY25. However, the binding financial plan before the Council does not include these funds in future year budgets. Our schools are working on their own two-year budgets, which are required by law to be submitted to the DC Public Charter School Board each June. How can they accurately project their budgets without a commitment to ongoing funding? The answer is they cannot.

What We Need to Address These Inequities

How do we fix these inequities? I understand that budgets require tough decisions, but there are steps you can take to begin undoing an education budget that vastly underfunds half the city’s students. We’re asking you to:

  1. Increase the amount of funding provided to charters for teacher pay increases.
  2. Allow charters to provide pay increases to the same categories of staff covered by the WTU agreement (teacher, instructional coach, counselor, social worker, psychologist, speech/language pathologist, and attendance officer).
  3. Require OSSE to disburse funding to schools under the charter grant no later than October 30, 2023 (30 days after the funds are available to OSSE for disbursement).
  4. Ensure that starting in FY25 the funding for salary increases across both sectors will be reflected in the UPSFF.

You have an opportunity to begin correcting these inequities as you consider the budget. And I urge you to seize that opportunity. Don’t shortchange half of our students and the educators that serve them.

As always, we stand ready to work with you and your teams on solutions to support our students and educators. Thank you for your time and attention.