District leaders must act to protect our most vulnerable students

District leaders must act to protect our most vulnerable students

By Shannon T. Hodge

It’s no secret that the ongoing pandemic has made the last couple of years among the most disruptive and devastating for students and their families. Thanks to vaccines and other health and safety measures, D.C. schools have adjusted to a new normal, and for that I’m grateful.

But in a city where nearly half of public school students are considered “at risk” of academic failure, recovery is not equitable. Even before the pandemic, gaps in opportunity between the District’s most vulnerable students and their peers led to gaps in academic outcomes. As we enter the third year living with a pandemic, both sets of gaps have transformed into chasms. And if we don’t come together to take drastic measures to accelerate learning, we risk not just missing chances to mitigate opportunity gaps. We risk setting our students up for failure.

We’ve known for years what it will take to close the gaps in academic outcomes between under-resourced students and their peers: bold investments for targeted interventions and supports. The city itself commissioned a rigorous, comprehensive education adequacy study in 2013 that recommended a specific level of school funding be directed to students designated as “at risk” of academic failure. We haven’t come close to funding at the level the study recommended, even with the historic investments Mayor Bowser announced this year. Now, nearly a decade later, we shouldn’t make the same mistakes we made back then. It’s time to commission a new, comprehensive education adequacy study to develop a fuller understanding of the funding needed to help students achieve desired academic and life outcomes. And this time, we must commit to following the study’s recommendations.

The 2013 adequacy study commissioned by the Council of the District of Columbia and the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) recommended creating a new funding weight to target investments at students considered “at risk” of academic failure. With this weight, schools receive extra funding for students designated as “at-risk” to support those students’ academic needs. The study recommended that students designated as “at-risk” receive 37 percent more funding than students not at risk of academic failure. That recommendation was largely ignored. Right now, schools receive only 24 percent more funding to meet the substantial academic and non-academic needs of students identified as likely to fail academically without targeted interventions and supports.

The result of not funding students adequately is not surprising. Academic outcomes for students designated as “at risk” were well below those of their peers in mathematics and English, even before the pandemic. A recent and troubling report from EmpowerK12 shows that the average student designated as “at risk” is now performing a full two grade levels behind their enrolled grade. That’s why school leaders and advocates have time and again urged the City to fully fund the at-risk weight at 37 percent.

What was “adequate” in 2013 isn’t nearly enough to support our most under-served students today, given all we know about what’s happened in the last two years. And what was “adequate” in 2013 certainly isn’t enough to guide the recovery work that schools have undertaken and that lies ahead for several years. But we won’t know what adequacy really requires unless we once again undertake a rigorous, comprehensive study to determine what level of funding is needed to equitably accelerate learning. That’s why we’ve urged the Council and DME to commission such a study –– and to sign into law a commitment to fully fund its recommendations for students designated as “at-risk” by fiscal year 2025.

A new, comprehensive adequacy study is critical because we want our policymakers to rely on in-depth analysis to inform their work. Research from policy experts like those at Edunomics Lab shows that the way state and local governments fund schools is fundamentally broken –– and offers solutions to equitably distribute funds. A new adequacy study should look to policy experts like Edunomics Lab and others nationwide to incorporate lessons learned from other cities.

And, to ensure independence, a panel of local and national education experts should review and approve the new adequacy study’s recommendations. That’s how we’ll produce the in-depth data and recommendations that the Mayor and the Council will need to grapple with funding pressures and priorities over the next few years.

District leaders must act to protect our most under-resourced and vulnerable students, and they should do so with data-driven policies. Schools will soon face a fiscal cliff as pandemic recovery dollars expire in the next two years, so commissioning this study and committing to a plan to actually follow its recommendations are urgent priorities. Without a new adequacy study, we risk failing our most vulnerable students instead of fostering environments that help every student access and benefit from a great public education.

Shannon T. Hodge is the founding executive director of the DC Charter School Alliance.

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