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Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray participates in a rally calling for comprehensive immigration reform on the Washington Mall, October 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray participates in a rally calling for comprehensive immigration reform on the Washington Mall, October 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed  

DC Charter Schools Sue City Over Funding Gap

A battle between charter schools and the nation’s capital continues to escalate.

Dozens of Washington, D.C. charter schools are launching a lawsuit against the District and Mayor Vincent Gray, claiming they have been systematically shortchanged in funding by a hostile city administration.

The D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools claims that the city has underfunded charter schools by more than $2,000 per student, per year compared to the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). The total shortfall since fiscal year 2008, they claim, is over $770 million. The gap, the association says, is a violation of a Congressional command that charter schools receive the same amount of funding as ordinary public schools. It also materially disadvantages the charters, they claim, making them struggle to pay competitive teacher salaries.

The plaintiffs support their claims of a disparity with a study commissioned by D.C.’s own government. The study, released last January, found that public schools benefit from an indirect subsidy through millions of dollars in in-kind support offered by other branches of the D.C. government. For example, the city’s Department of General Services provided far more free facilities maintenance to regular public schools than it did to charters.

“These funding disparities are contrary to D.C. law,” the report concluded.

Other sources of unfairness proliferate, the lawsuit says. Charter schools have their per-pupil funds calculated exclusively on the basis of confirmed enrollments, while DCPS is allowed to rely on estimates of how many students will be enrolled in the coming school year. With DCPS seeing steadily declining enrollment, these estimates are often inflated, the charter advocates claim.

In the past, the city has defended some of these sources of the funding disparity by arguing that DCPS is hamstrung by the need to hire union labor and by the requirement that schools be able to enroll new students throughout the year, of any background. Charter schools do not have such limitations. The plaintiffs argue, however, that such arguments are irrelevant when contrasted with a clear Congressional mandate that charters and public schools be funded identically.

D.C.’s charter school program is one of the nation’s most ambitious, with its approximately 37,000 participating students comprising over 40 percent of all publicly-funded schoolchildren in the city.

The Center for Education Reform (CER), a pro-charter school group, said the lawsuit was an unfortunate necessity brought about by the city government’s failure to close a very obvious gap.

“Across the nation, charter schools continuously get cheated out of resources, even in places like the District of Columbia where charter schools currently serve as an educational lifeline for 44 percent of the public school population,” CER president Kara Kerwin said in a statement sent to The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The lawsuit is the latest clash in a bitter history that dates back to 1996, when Congress amended the D.C. School Reform Act to establish a public charter school system in the District. Charter schools’ better test scores and higher graduation rates have led to a sharp decline in the number of students enrolling with DCPS, while charters have struggled to meet rising demand. DCPM has been compelled to close schools, and has fought to prevent the transfer of the closed school buildings to charter schools. Another source of friction has been with the Washington Teachers’ Union, which has long sought to undermine charter schools’ exemption from collective bargaining laws.

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