In all, the Bowser administration called on spending $2.2 billion in local taxpayer dollars on public education for the 2023 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, up from about $2 billion this year. That is based on a 5.9 percent increase in spending for each of the city’s more than 90,000 public school students — the biggest year-over-year funding in Bowser’s tenure that arrives as she is campaigning for a third term in office.
The proposed baseline funding, which the D.C. Council still has to approve, for each student is $12,419, up from $11,730 this year. Students who are considered at-risk for academic failure based on their families income levels — nearly half of the public school population — along with students who have special education needs and those who speak English as a second language would receive additional funding.
On top of that, Bowser highlighted a previous multi-year budget investment, which uses $27 million from the Department of Behavioral Health to hire more therapists in schools. The city will also receive its typical allotment of federal dollars, plus unspent pandemic relief money that it can use the next academic year.
Still, the budget announcement highlighted just how complicated — and expensive — it is to fund schools during a pandemic, particularly in a city like D.C., where a large and growing charter sector means that many public school campuses are under-enrolled and more expensive to operate per student.
And, with soaring national inflation rates and worker shortages, it’s unclear how far this significant investment in the city’s public schools will stretch.
“After two years of living through a pandemic, our young people have a wide range of needs,” Bowser said at a news conference Monday in the library of Columbia Heights Education Campus. “This increase will make sure that our schools will have the resources that they need to support the increased and individualized needs of students during this time.”
After experiencing a slight decline in enrollment during the first year of the pandemic, the District’s public school enrollment remained relatively stagnant this academic year, with the charter sector experiencing a small enrollment bump, and the traditional public school system seeing a small decrease, according to city data.
Even before the pandemic, many middle and high schools in low-income neighborhoods saw dwindling enrollment, prompting the city to give these campuses more money beyond the standard per-pupil funding allotment so they could hire enough staff needed to provide the same academic and extracurricular services in better enrolled schools. The city currently has a law that says every traditional public school must receive at least 95 percent of the funding it did the year prior, no matter how much its enrollment has dropped.
This year, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said, the pandemic caused a decrease in enrollment in younger grades. The mayor proposed $36 million in funds over two years that would be split among traditional public and charter schools facing declining enrollment.
“Our pre-K student enrollment was down overall, and our elementary enrollment was down overall,” Kihn said. “These are areas that we anticipate, as we move through the pandemic, our public school population to tick back up and increase.”
Many of the city’s big education spending announcements over the past year have yet to be realized because of hiring challenges. In October, for example, the school system announced that it would spend $22 million in federal funds to hire two new employees at each of the city’s 120 public school campuses: One person to handle covid-19 logistics and another to serve as a permanent substitute teacher. But D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said Monday that just 20 people have been placed in schools, with another 100 or so in the hiring process.
And in February 2021, Ferebee announced a large intervention program that would provide individual and small group tutoring to around 10 percent of students over the summer and this academic year. On Monday, Ferebee described these plans as “ongoing” and “fluid” and said the city is still collecting data to determine how much money schools have spent on these programs. School districts across the country are competing for a limited number of qualified tutors, and many say they have struggled to hire enough extra staff.
The Department of Behavioral Health currently has licensed therapists or psychologists in 155 traditional public and charter schools. Under the budget proposal, the agency would have workers in each of the city’s 216 school campuses. This is in addition to the mental health workers that the school system and individual charters employ.
Barbara J. Bazron, the agency’s director, acknowledged that filling these new slots could be difficult, particularly as many districts in the region also plan to increase their school mental health staffs. She said the city is already recruiting for these new employees and, if the agency does not have enough licensed workers, it would hire people who are still training to become therapists under the supervision of the licensed workers.
“Everybody knows that around the country there are really not sufficient numbers of [licensed social workers] to serve in a various capacities,” Bazron said. “We are also working closely at getting more people in our pipeline through our internship programs and so forth. We are doing some of the same things that people around the country are doing.”
The budget would also, effective immediately, increase substitute teacher wages to a minimum of $20 per hour. The pandemic has created a greater demand for substitute teachers as more school staff members are out quarantining or taking care of their own children who have been quarantined. The District’s substitute teachers have been protesting for higher wages, including with a rally Monday afternoon. Last month, Bowser announced that she would increase substitute teacher pay from $15.20 to $17 per hour.
“We weren’t at the right place with our substitutes at the beginning of the year,” Bowser said.