Help The District’s Vulnerable Children

Commentary

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Stock photo.

Like the nation, the District of Columbia has been shocked, traumatized and damaged by the coronavirus public health crisis. On top of this, the District is still calculating the consequences of the lockdown’s brutal impact on the economy and city revenues. In addition, the ongoing national wound surrounding George Floyd’s murder and culture of police brutality that brought demonstrations, disturbances and curfew to the District have exacted a heavy toll on residents, from which we are yet to recover.

Sadly, amid this triple tragedy, the federal government has been far from a willing partner and constructive ally. Focus has understandably been drawn to the challenges presented by the administration’s choices with regard to policing and the use of the National Guard. Less well known is the fact that the District is being seriously short-changed by the federal stimulus legislation that is necessary to aid DC in recovery. Scandalously, the District has been deprived of $725 million in relief funds, courtesy of a U.S. Senate decision to classify the District as a territory rather than as a state as in previous emergencies. This is despite the fact that DC residents pay more in federal income tax than the residents of 22 states.

Despite such huge challenges, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) affirmed her commitment to the District’s public schools by including a three percent increase in the Uniform Per-Student Funding Formula (UPSFF). The UPSFF funds school operating costs for DC Public Schools, the traditional public school system, and DC charter schools, which operate independently of DCPS and educate nearly half of public school students. City educators also are encouraged by the support of several councilmembers for raising per-student funding by the full four percent planned by the mayor before the current budget crunch.

But while many District residents have experienced some measure of economic, logistical and socio-emotional hardship, the impact of this year’s crises are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.  Healing the adverse impact they are enduring should be the city’s top fiscal priority.

The coronavirus pandemic struck at the heart of the District’s most underserved neighborhoods. Of all virus-related fatalities, three in four have been African-American —compared to a population share of just under half. In Ward 8, the District’s most disadvantaged, there are 7.5 fatalities per 100,000 people. In Ward 3, D.C.’s most affluent ward, that rate is 1.6 per 100,000—one quarter of the Ward 8 number.  

As the Council reviews the budget, it is critical that the additional expenditures required of schools to keep students and staff safe —social distancing protocols, personal protective equipment and additional cleaning, among other measures— aren’t taken from stretched school operating funds. These must be allocated from a citywide recovery plan drawing on federal dollars, not the proposed UPSFF increase.

No less importantly, councilmembers need to ensure that students most at-risk of academic underachievement are protected from falling further behind educationally. The District defines at-risk students as those who are homeless; in foster care; receiving family income or nutritional assistance; or enrolled in high school below the grade level for their age. Increasing the weighting for these students —who comprise about half of all District students— from 0.225 of the base UPSFF to 0.370 as recommended by the city’s own adequacy study would help alleviate the learning loss they have suffered.

In terms of mental health support, the Council should allow schools the funds to provide badly-needed additional services, so that students have access to trauma-informed instructional practices and trained mental health professionals for what will be an extremely challenging new school year. The federal funds in the mayor’s budget are insufficient for this purpose, while budget cuts to the Department of Behavioral Health undercut even that investment. Adequate investment is of critical importance at a time when extended social isolation, absence from school, family finances and other stressors are challenging many students.

Last but not least, the Council must address the sharp digital divide that shuttered schools have revealed by providing universal access to the internet and information technology, so that all students can fully participate in future distance learning and access mental health support, social services and healthcare online.

Public education is rightly recognized as a priority in the mayor’s budget; protecting it means the recent challenges to learning, in healthcare and the economy will not undermine the progress that the District has made in educational outcomes. We must now also move to protect the District’s most vulnerable children, their education and well-being.

Ramona Edelin is executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools; Anne Herr is interim co-executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.