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Federal funds are not why DC school budgets are being cut
But school officials make it sound that way
Beers Elementary School, in Ward 8, is facing a $362,000 budget cut this year. Many other schools around DC are facing similar impacts. And, most parents either don’t know this is happening, or they don’t understand why.
One reason is that at hearings and in press statements, the Deputy Mayor for Education’s office and DC Public Schools greatly misrepresent what is going on. Whether they don’t understand it or are trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes, I don’t know. I want to assume people are acting in good faith, and when I’ve talked to people there, they sound like they are. But, they keep repeating the same incorrect information, so I don’t know what to think.
The latest example appears in an article in the Washington Post Tuesday, headlined “Schools brace for challenges as once-in-a-lifetime cash runs out.” The article talks about the cut to Beers, and quotes some parents about the harm it will cause. It also talks about a big issue in education: that federal Covid relief money, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund or ESSER, is drying up. Reporter Lauren Lumpkin quotes some school system officials from Montgomery County and around the country about how losing ESSER funds will cause pain for their schools.
Both of these are true — Beers is being cut, and ESSER is ending — but they are not the same thing. In fact they are totally different.
Many DC schools did use ESSER funding, and that is going away. But that’s not the same thing at all. The $362,000 cut reported about Beers is 100% the difference between its local funds for the current school year and next year.
Not ESSER. In fact, Beers got $40,485 in FY 2023 in ESSER funding (the current year); it’s slated for $90,000 in ESSER next year. That’s more. More than twice as much! Yet Mayor Bowser is reducing the local funds contribution to Beers by $362,000.
Two things are happening at the same time. First, ESSER is ending. Second, DCPS is phasing in a new budget model which has raised some schools’ budgets considerably and reduced others drastically — partly now, partly later.
The model increases school budgets if enrollment goes up, decreases them if the number of high-need students goes down, and so forth. That’s something officials readily admit, and seems fine.
What they don’t talk about is that the model also created a brand new “baseline” funding amount, and for Beers and many other schools, that baseline is lower. If not for the baseline, Beers would have deserved about $350,000-400,000 more than it got, because its at-risk population rose and so did its overall enrollment, while its special education population shrank slightly.
But, the model wants to crank down Beers’ overall funding because it thinks it should be lower. It’s just math and doesn’t have opinions, but the implication is that it “thinks” Beers was over-funded before. And so it’s “trying” to cut Beers.
Again, unrelated to ESSER.
Lumpkin does have one paragraph connecting them, explaining what she was told by DC education officials:
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), meanwhile, has kicked in local funds to replace some of the federal dollars and ease the transition back to pre-ESSER spending. But the $36 million “recovery fund” will not be sustained beyond 2024, which is contributing to budget cuts at schools like Beers.
That’s mostly true, but also still mostly irrelevant. Beers’ share of this recovery money in the current year’s budget was just $37,191, or only about 10% of the cut (and, remember, it’s getting almost $50,000 more in ESSER!)
Mayor Bowser’s administration isn’t saying this, whether deliberately (because it’s successfully tricking reporters and some elected officials and other people, and it’s leading to articles that make it sound like she’s making schools a huge gift) or because they don’t understand it either.
The effect, unfortunately, is that people would come to believe that this is just an unfortunate belt tightening that comes from the federal government turning off the spigot, and that we just have to live with that.
Not in this case. Mayor Bowser is cutting Beers. Not Joe Biden, not Kevin McCarthy, not Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell.
If Mayor Bowser would like to make the case that Beers was over-funded, I’m happy to hear it. Parents and Ward 8 leaders I’ve heard from don’t seem to think so, but a mayor is entitled to suggest budget changes. Instead, she is cutting schools, but avoiding having this mayoral decision ascribed to her, and instead being attributed with positive efforts regarding schools like Beers.
That’s just not accurate. We have mayoral control of schools in DC, and this was a mayoral choice, to add more money to some other schools and take it away from Beers.
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