Last year, the DC Council passed legislation designed to ensure that additional funds would be distributed equally among the District’s neediest students. A new interactive graphic shows that instead, some of those students are getting a lot less money than others.

Image from DC Fiscal Policy Institute and Code for DC.

The DC Council decided that schools should spend an additional $2,000 dollars per year on each “at-risk” student in traditional public or public charter schools. The at-risk category includes students who are in foster care, homeless, receiving welfare or food stamps, or at least a year behind in high school.

The Council didn’t specify what kinds of programs the money should fund. Charter schools are free to spend it however they want, and the DC Public Schools administration is supposed to delegate the decision about how to spend the money to individual schools.

But DC Public Schools said it didn’t have enough time to allocate the additional funding on a per-pupil basis this year, as the law required. Instead, it used the money to fund initiatives it had already planned, saying they lined up with the needs of at-risk students.

The result is that some DCPS schools are spending much less on each at-risk student than others, according to a data tool developed by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and Code for DC, a volunteer group of data enthusiasts.

Mann Elementary in Ward 3, for example, spent over $15,000 on each of its at-risk students. That’s partly because there are only two such students there, making up just 1% of the school’s total enrollment, according to the data tool.

By contrast, Ballou High School in Ward 8 spent only about $5,000 on each of its 470 at-risk students, which represent 72% of the school population. And Beers Elementary in Ward 7 spent a mere $168 on each of its 259 at-risk students, 60% of its enrollment.

At-risk money is benefiting a broader range of students

Of course, as the data tool also reveals, that doesn’t mean each at-risk student is getting exactly that amount of extra help. In line with DCPS’s priorities, much of the additional money is going to efforts that benefit a broader range of students: expanding curriculum, enrichment activities, and mental health support for middle-grade students; extending the school day at schools that chose to do so; and focusing on literacy at low-performing schools.

At Ballou, for example, over $100,000 went to hiring an assistant principal for literacy. Middle schools got additional staff and money for field trips and extracurricular activities.

At many schools, though, it’s not clear where the money is really going. Many DCPS schools received grants designed to increase student satisfaction, which count as part of their at-risk funding. Each school can use that money for things it determines will help students enjoy school more, such as extracurricular activities or technology.

But the data tool doesn’t detail what exactly the schools did with those grants, called Proving What’s Possible for Student Satisfaction Awards. Mann and Beers each got all of their at-risk funding in the form of one of those grants, so it’s unclear what they’re doing with any of the money.

The data tool also doesn’t include charter schools, so it’s also unclear what they are doing with their at-risk funds.

How will DCPS allocate at-risk money in the future?

It remains to be seen what DCPS will do with the at-risk money next year, when there’s enough time to allocate it on a per-pupil basis and let individual schools decide how to spend it. Will administrators at the central office be tempted to continue using the money to fund priorities they have already set, like improving high schools?

Aside from the temptation to follow through on existing plans, DCPS may find it hard to come up with initiatives focused exclusively on at-risk students. If a school hires an additional reading specialist, adopts an extended day, or plans a field trip, can it—and should it—try to limit those services to kids who are homeless or on welfare?

A better approach might be to fund “high-dosage” tutors for kids in the at-risk category. When it’s done intensively and integrated into the life of the school, tutoring can have a dramatic impact on achievement. A side benefit might be the kind of mentoring that at-risk students are likely to need.

Even with that kind of targeted program, there will inevitably be funding disparities. A school with only two at-risk students will probably have to pay more per pupil for on-site tutoring than a school that has several hundred. But it’s unlikely to cost 89 times as much per student, which is the difference between what Mann and Beers are supposedly spending on at-risk students now.

It’s great that DCPS wants to increase field trips, beef up the middle school curriculum, and do other things that will benefit a larger group of students. But the system should be funding those initiatives with its general operating money. The fact is, the law requires DCPS to funnel its at-risk money to students facing the greatest challenges. And that may be what’s needed to give them a real chance to succeed.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.