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D.C. charter schools sue city over funding inequity compared to DCPS

Two sources from a charter school support organization within the nation’s capital have informed me that a short time ago a lawsuit was filed in Federal court against the city, Mayor Gray, and the city's Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey Dewitt by charters regarding the sector’s inequitable operations funding compared to DCPS. The legal action seeks the following:

“A declaratory judgment that the funding practices that result in DCPS receiving more in local funds on a per student basis than public charter schools receive are illegal under the uniform funding requirement of the School Reform Acts; and

Injunctive relief – an Order from the Court directing the District of Columbia to cease these non-uniform funding practices.”

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) has been the facilitating the lawsuit which includes as plaintiffs the D.C. Association for Chartered Public Schools, Eagle Academy PCS, and Washington Latin PCS. (I serve on Washington Latin’s Board of Governors.) The suit is being funded by FOCUS’ Legal Advocacy Fund. The attorneys for the plaintiffs are the Stephen Marcus and Wilmer Hale Firms.

Here’s some background regarding the reason this matter has ended up in court. The School Reform Act was created by Congress in 1996 to allow the formation of charter schools in Washington, D.C. The legislation mandates that all public school operations funding for both DCPS and charters be provided using a “uniform dollar amount” tied to the number of pupils enrolled. The District, the lawsuit alleges, is breaking the law by providing DCPS with $72 million to $127 million a year outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF). Since the fiscal year 2008 the dollars that DCPS has received over that which charters have been paid for operating expenses are estimated to be more than $770 million. This has occurred through four mechanisms:

1. The city pays DCPS for the number of students it estimates it will enroll each year. When the number then comes in lower than expected the city does not take back the dollars. Charters are paid only for the actual enrollment count,

2. DCPS receives supplemental funding outside of the UPSFF that charters do not. For example, the lawsuit states that in Fiscal Year 2012 DCPS received more than $25 million as part of the Emergency Adjustment Act for operating costs for things like “staff salaries, food services, and after-school programs,”

3. Through the annual budget process DCPS is provided with money outside of the UPSFF through actions such as “Intra-District Transfers, Line Items and Pension Payments.” For example, DCPS receives free funding for legal and facility maintenance. Since 2008 DPS has been given more approximately $316 million for these services alone that charters have had to fund out of their per pupil operating funding, and

4. DCPS receives subsidized services that charters do not. The example provided in the legal complaint refers to a contract the Metropolitan Police Department has with DCPS to be responsible for security services. DCPS does pay MPD for this job but the contract is much more expensive than the amount the traditional school system contributes. The MPD simply covers the cost difference through which DCPS has gained $12 million in funding outside of the UPSFF.

FOCUS, the Association, and individual charter schools identified these funding discrepancies years ago; but efforts to work with multiple administrations and the D.C. Council to right this wrong have proved futile. The charter movement was encouraged, however, by the release toward the end of 2013 of the public education financing report known as the Adequacy Study by the Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith. The Study concluded that the funding of charters compared to DCPS was “inequitable.”

Ms. Smith committed to fixing this issue, although she admitted it would take many budget cycles to completely remedy the problem. Then when the Mayor’s 2015 budget was released it contained the same unfair funding structure that has existed all along.

This left the charter movement with really no other course than to take legal action.

FOCUS's executive director Robert Cane commented about the complaint:

"FOCUS and the public charter schools have been petitioning the D.C. government for more than a decade to obey the law and stop underfunding charter school students. Three successive administrations, including the current one, have ignored our entreaties. Filing suit is the only way left to the charter schools to get the funding for their students that they are entitled to and deserve."