Recently, the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, Eagle Academy Public Charter School and Washington Latin Public Charter School filed in court to require the District of Columbia government to end its practice of underfunding charter school students. For the past eight years, DC has deprived its public charter school students—44 percent of D.C. students enrolled in public school—of between $2,600 and $1,600 per student per year. Those are city dollars, which their peers in DCPS received, but District public charter school students did not. The inequity is illegal.
This lawsuit follows years of advocacy by the District’s public charter school community to try to persuade the D.C. government to follow the law, which demands that DCPS and D.C. charter students be funded according to the same criteria. Two government-sponsored reports during the past three years have publicly acknowledged the inequity and one has specifically cited the illegality of current funding disparities.
Charters are public schools that offer a tuition-free education to District-resident children. Charters must accept all applicants without screening, provided they have the places to seat them. These public schools also are required to fully accommodate special education students and those for whom English is a second language. Additionally, public charter schools must obey all health and safety regulations, and civil rights laws.
Public charter schools are free to offer their own school culture and curriculum, while being held accountable for improved student performance by the D.C. Public Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by D.C.’s mayor. They are performing well, and meeting the City’s mandate to close the achievement gap between students of color and White students in DC. They should be rewarded for their success – not punished!
These public schools’ biggest impact has been made east of the Anacostia River, where public charter students outperform their peers enrolled in D.C. Public Schools, the traditional system, in Wards Seven and Eight by 19 and 28 percentage points respectively. Charter high school graduation rates are 21 percentage points higher than those of their DCPS equivalents, ensuring that a higher share of charter students are accepted to, and can graduate from, college.
This illegal funding inequity adversely impacts some of our city’s poorest and most at-risk students. Of the charter students whom the District government underfunds, 78 percent are African-American, compared to 68 percent in DCPS; and 12 percent of DCPS students, but only five percent of charter students, are White. Some 80 percent of District public charter school students are eligible for federal school lunch subsidies—a higher percentage than those attending DCPS who are similarly disadvantaged.
The Uniform Per Student Funding Formula law, passed by the D.C. Council, was designed to ensure equal resources from the government for all public school students. For example, under the formula, every third-grader needing level one special education services receives the same local public funding, whether she or he attends a DCPS or a D.C. public charter school.
To uphold the basic fairness enshrined in the law, we have gone to court because as the government continues to underfund its public charter school students, those students lose between $130 and $75 million annually. In fact, over the past eight years, the underfunding amounts to over $770 million—a huge amount.
The District’s public charter schools have helped build a lifeline through high school and college to professional careers for many of our most disadvantaged students. Will the DC government invest in this tremendous, life-altering success and treat all public school students equally?
Ramona Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public School and a longtime civil rights activist.