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Why is my school's budget being cut? Part 2: More info about every school
Some DCPS school budgets are rising while others were cut. Where do these numbers come from?
Over half (67 of 116) DCPS schools got an initial budget for next year which was lower than their budget this year. A lot of the change comes from DCPS shifting to a new budget model. The DC Council didn’t like parts of this and even passed a law to restrict cuts, but DCPS has moved forward with cuts anyway.
I discussed these in an earlier article. Today, I made a tool you can use to see how changes to high-need students, overall enrollment, and just the vagaries of the new model have affected your school’s budget. Check it out, or read lots more details below.
The three — no, actually four — ways budgets changed
At hearings, DCPS chancellor Lewis Ferebee cited a few reasons a school’s budget may have changed:
The school may have seen enrollment rise or fall.
The school may have a change in its high-need student population — “at-risk” students (primarily low-income), special education students, and English language learners.
DC is phasing out “one-time” pandemic recovery funds.
These are true, but also not the whole story.
What’s missing, which I covered last time, is that the DCPS new model also drastically revised every school’s budget amounts. Some schools gained 20% in funding and some would have lost 20% in funding.
However, the Bowser administration offered “hold harmless” funding to keep schools from losing out (with a few complex exceptions, like Hardy Middle School). The budget was fairly rosy that year. Some people have speculated that it being an election year could have been a factor.
This year, schools who were “losers” under the budget model are starting to see their budgets change. Schools could lose no more than 5% of their budget, so some schools saw a drop of 5%, and will even likely see another drop next year, and maybe the one after that, depending on the school.
DCPS communications have thus far still not acknowledged this fourth (and often most significant) factor, though other city officials have privately made clear to me they do recognize it.
What’s in those graphs
If you go to the tool I created and select a school, you will see what’s called a “waterfall” graph. This breaks out a set of items, some positive and some negative, and each bar adds onto or subtracts from the one before.
For example, for Seaton, it’s gaining $34,920 due to a rise in projected at-risk students, but losing $118,897 due to fewer projected special education students. The first bar for at-risk is thus green and goes up, while the special education bar is red and, starting where the prior bar ended, goes down.
The bars show the change in those two populations and also the number of English language learners. These three groups get extra, dedicated funding because they need more services, which costs money, and it’s important to ensure they get the assistance they need to succeed. (Long-time school budget advocates like Mary Levy and Betsy Wolf argue that by under-funding education overall, DCPS forces schools to divert high-need student funds to other purposes, and thus not meeting students’ needs.)
Schools may be growing or shrinking. If they are shrinking, the DCPS budget model reduces the school’s funding. (There’s a big debate about whether this is appropriate; see below). DCPS doesn’t provide enough information to know for sure how much of the funding change is due to enrollment change, so this is an estimate (and I may tweak the formula as I am able to improve it)
Another bar shows the change in pandemic one-time local funds. Schools also got federal “ESSER” funding, but unfortunately, DCPS does not break down how ESSER funds are used, so I could not incorporate them.
The last red and green bar shows the aggregate effect of all other changes. Again, DCPS’ budget data is somewhat illuminating but not completely, but this bar covers the other ways in which the model may be rewarding or punishing a school.
Finally, the blue bar shows the net change to the school’s budget this year, which could be a decline of no more than 5% of the total budget.
If the decline was indeed capped at 5%, my tool also shows a red warning that discusses how it could lose more funding in the future.
Note that these still use initial budgets, the ones DCPS proposed in late February. Revised budgets are supposed to be out very soon, and I will work to incorporate the data when possible.
Are these numbers fair? Equitable?
That’s fodder for quite a bit of debate, which can’t be fully covered here.
I’ve been trying to delve into all of these numbers for a few weeks, and before that spent quite a bit of time on it last year. There’s a lot I’ve figured out and a lot I still don’t understand. Sometimes I’ve tried to replicate calculations in the model, following the documentation posted online, and ended up with numbers that don’t match DCPS’ at all.
Why does that matter? Because I want to try to verify the arguments I’ve heard from DCPS and determine whether they are reasonable, but the information isn’t all available. (In fact, to get even the basic data in my tool, or Mary Levy’s or Betsy Wolf’s analysis, I had to write Python code to turn the DCPS budget PDFs into data, and the two of them helped to clean up errors.)
DC education officials say a goal was to put more money in the hands of high-need schools. And broadly, if you run a regression comparing money-before to money-after against level of at risk, it’s positive. I definitely agree high need schools should get more resources to meet the needs of their populations.
However, there is also enormous volatility. There are schools like Ward 7’s Beers Elementary which gained about $150,000 in at-risk money this year but still lost $362,000 overall. As Mary Levy explained, when you take out the funding for high-need groups, “there are multiple schools of the same size with discrepancies of $1,000 or more per pupil for [the] basic program.”
Here’s a graph I made last year, trying to understand the effect of the model; you can see there is a small positive correlation between added funding and at-risk level among elementary schools, but also great shifts independent of at-risk level. High schools benefited overall, at all at-risk levels, and elementary schools generally lost out across the board.
I’d like to be able to dig in better to understand why the model has done this, and moreover if it’s fair or not, but there are a lot of moving pieces inside the model which remain opaque.
My main skepticism is whether it was sensible or necessary to switch models at the same time as implementing an increased weight for at-risk students or other populations with need. Alternatively, DCPS could have simply weighed that higher in the old model. Maybe that would have been better, or maybe not, but it’s been difficult to find out more about the specifics and the reasons for those specifics.
(For example: Education campuses, which are PK-8 or 6-12, get an extra weight in the model. So if you had one campus and split it into two schools, I think they’d get less money; or if two schools merged, they’d get more. Is there a reason? That’s a good question. Maybe!)
What Schools First does differently
The law enacted by the DC Council last year to limit cuts, Schools First in Budgeting, still allows some of the cuts here but not others.
Changes to at-risk, special ed, and ELL are still recognized. Mostly, if the council fixes budgets based on SFIB, the schools’ budgets could still decrease (or increase, if they increased) for these reasons.
(Some school communities, however, disagree with the specific changes DCPS assigned; people at bilingual Bruce-Monroe Elementary, for instance, criticized the $176,000 cut in their ELL when they have a lot of non-English-speaking students and are even seeing more move in.)
Enrollment changes are more limited. If one grade level in a school shrank enough that the school doesn’t need as many classrooms while still staying under class size limits, it can lose teachers, but not otherwise. Also the DCPS model takes money from other parts of a school as enrollment drops, which SFIB limits.
Phase-out of pandemic recovery funds is allowed under SFIB.
Other model disfavor is mostly not allowed.
So if you imagine keeping the at-risk, special ed, ELL, and pandemic phase-out bars for your school, and any positive (green) bars (the council will not cut school budgets which were increased), you can guesstimate what your budget might be if the council enforces SFIB. If your bar is red for enrollment and/or model disfavor, maybe you’d get that back.
I’d love to have an even better analysis of what schools ought to get under SFIB. I actually made one a while ago — it was the first project I did after the budgets came out, besides screen scraping — but it’s not accurate enough yet.
What else would you like to know about DCPS budgets?