Testimony of Sarah Livingston – Committee on Education Public Charter School Board Budget Hearing – May 4, 2017

I’m Sarah Livingston, one of DC’s voting, taxpaying citizens from Ward 6.

This past Saturday, I saw a film called “A Backpack Full of Cash” that documents some of the ways that public education in our country is being privatized including by charter schools. It does a great job of showing, in Philadelphia for example, how the more a city spends for charter schools the less it has for the public schools and the dire consequences that follow.

So far we haven’t had that problem in DC because we’ve had enough money to maintain the funding for DCPS while also paying for a growing number of charter schools. There are however two things in the FY 18 budget that deeply concern me.

First, the budget proposes a change in the charter school expenditure of 11.4% over FY 17 while the change for DCPS is 2.7%. That is a substantial difference amounting to $82.8 million of the $105 million increase for education going to charter schools. The lack of balance there is very concerning.

In addition, we know that in some cases, DCPS has used its at-risk funds for things that are supposed to be covered by the per pupil funds. Is that an indication that over the past three years, DCPS has already been in a position of having to rob Peter to pay Paul? Is the 1.5% increase in the per pupil level rather than the 2.2 % needed to cover inflation related to the 2.2 % increase in the charter school facilities allotment?

My second concern comes from looking at what the budget proposes to address our homeless crisis relative to the budget for charter schools. By my calculation, all the homeless measures together total about $365.1 million. The budget for charter schools is $806.5 million. That’s more than twice as much money as what we will spend to get our fellow citizens and their children into safe and stable homes. (Table of figures attached.)

While the budget as a whole is balanced in terms of dollars and cents, it is also hugely out of balance if we value children living in homes more than we do having charter schools and I do. Food, shelter and clothing are basic human needs for survival. Charter schools are not.

There could be many causes for this imbalance but the one I see most clearly is the law that gave the DC government the authority to grant charters for schools back in 1995 when things were very, very different. Though it’s seen some changes over the years, I think it is inadequate to govern our current public education reality. There’s no requirement that the board take into consideration anything other than the specific application before it, such as does DC as a whole need or want another charter school? The law gives it to the applicant to determine whether there is a need or not. There is nothing in the law to prevent anyone from anywhere coming here, and if the Board approves their application, being guaranteed that we the taxpayers will foot the bill for their school regardless of the effect on our budget. It allows the Board to approve up to ten applications a year, to obligate millions and millions of our tax dollars for years and years on end. The School Reform Act of 1995, in my view, badly needs a comprehensive update.

Meanwhile, in light of the terrible imbalance between our spending for homeless children and that for charter schools, I would love to see the board offer to put on hold any more charter school applications at least until the facilities that will replace DC General are up and running. I can’t imagine that any board member is entirely comfortable with the thought that their decisions, even if they are within the law, are tying up money that could be used to help the city solve the homeless problem.

But I know for a fact that Malcolm Peabody, who has been much celebrated for leading the effort to get charters schools in DC once said “I think it would be too bad for the charter schools to take over the whole city.”  I couldn’t agree more!

Table 1. Public Education System

Agency FY17 FY18 % change
DC Public Schools $905,881,570 $930,498,476 2.7
Charter Schools 723,717,252 806,482,683 11.4
Special Education Transportation 93,070,026 103,988,501 6.9
Non-Public Tuition 74,460,953 72,046,295 -3.2
DC Public Library 58,623,914 59,478,844 -1.3
Deputy Mayor Education 3,132,667 8,969,421 139.7
State Superintendent 495,306,485 498,318,338 0.6
State Board of Education 1,498,516 1,525,000 1.8
Charter School Board 8,013,987 9,109,827 13.7
UDC Subsidy 76,680,000 76,680,000 0.0
Teachers’ Retirement System 56,781,000 59,046,000 4.0
TOTAL $2,497,165,370 $2,626,033,385  

Note: figures are from the first page of Agency Chapters, volume 3, part 2, FY 17 and FY 18)

Homeless and Housing Expenditures, Operating

Homeward DC Allocation in millions
    Homeless Shelter Replacement Act of 2016 $28
    Permanent Supportive Housing 5.9
    Targeted Affordable Housing for Individuals & Families 3.0
    Rapid Re-housing 3.9
Housing Production Trust fund 100.0
Office on Aging Safe at Home Adaptations 3.0
DC Housing Authority Local Rent Supplemental Program 6.3
DHCD Housing Preservation 10.0
Affordable Housing components of Development Projects

Walter Reed—14

St Elizabeth’s—103

New Communities–85





TOTAL $365.1

Note: Figures for this table and the info below are from the Mayor’s Transmittal Letter and the Executive Summary, Introduction, FY18.

Homeless and Housing, Capital

Department Human Services–$50 million to acquire and construct temporary family shelters


Published by Suzanne Wells

I work at EPA, and have a son and a daughter. I commute just about everywhere by bike. I like to volunteer in my community, and to knit.


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