Students at Briya Public Charter School
Students at Briya Public Charter School Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Who could be against “equity” and “parity” when it comes to paying teachers? The latest debate over teacher salaries roiling the Wilson Building looks simple enough on its face, but it exposes yet another important tension between the public and charter school sectors.

The new round of bickering started not long after public school teachers finally secured a new contract late last year (which the Council is set to approve Tuesday). The collective bargaining agreement brokered by the Washington Teachers’ Union gives DCPS teachers a 12 percent raise in total, with pay bumps applying retroactively to cover the three-year-long negotiating process, but none of that applies to the nonunionized charter sector. Naturally, those schools have started pressing city leaders to cough up an equivalent amount of cash to match those raises.

“To ask public charter school leaders and teachers to continue serving students well with significantly fewer resources than DCPS exacerbates the inequity between the sectors and our most under-resourced students and their peers,” Ariel Johnson, executive director of the DC Charter School Alliance, writes in a Dec. 19 letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Council. Sixty of D.C.’s 68 charter school operators signed onto the letter.

That might seem like a reasonable request on its face. Charter school teachers are paid much less than their DCPS counterparts, on average, so why shouldn’t the city kick in some extra money to even things up?

If only things were so simple. For one thing, the union worries that agreeing to this demand undermines their hopes of organizing charter school teachers someday; if nonunionized teachers can get raises without paying union dues, why bother with the WTU? What’s more, many schools advocates observe that most of the city’s charters are flush with cash from their wealthy benefactors, and they simply choose not to pay teachers more in favor of building up healthy reserve funds or jacking up salaries for executives. If the city sends the charters more money, it doesn’t have any enforcement mechanism to ensure the schools spend that cash on teachers.

“If there are needs within the charter sector, they should be providing more data and information to justify that,” Qubilah Huddleston, an education policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, tells Loose Lips. Her group backed a Jan. 12 letter from the Coalition for DC Public Schools and Communities opposing the charter sector’s request. “But there’s just so little transparency there,” she adds.

It’s shaping up to be a bruising fight as budget season rapidly approaches. Bowser will set the tone with her opening spending proposal, currently due to the Council by March 22, and there’s every reason to believe that she’ll work to meet the ask from the charter schools. In fact, Chairman Phil Mendelson tells LL that he suspects Bowser waited so long to send the WTU contract to the Council so that she could find funding to meet the charters’ request. It may be difficult for lawmakers to reverse the mayor’s proposal if she does so, simply because the amount of money at play is so substantial, but there is already wrangling going on as they await her budget.

“It is an irony that they would seek to benefit from the union while they try to also benefit from the fact that they are not unionized,” Ward 3 Councilmember Matt Frumin said at a Feb. 1 hearing on the new WTU contract, arguing that any money for charters “needs to go directly to teachers.” (The irony appeared lost on At-Large Councilmember and newly minted labor committee chair Anita Bonds, however, who used some of her time to ask WTU President Jacqueline Pogue-Lyons whether her union represents any charter teachers; she replied with a simple “No.”)

Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker made a similar demand for guaranteed pay for teachers, adding “anything outside of that is going to make it difficult for me to get there.” (Frumin also noted during the hearing that LL’s recent column predicted that the two newest councilmembers would be more engaged on education issues, and here they are already following through.)

Bowser’s deputies have been tight-lipped on their plans, for now. City Administrator Kevin Donahue said at the contract hearing that the issue is one he’s “looking at closely,” but cautioned that “the budget is not done.” And, despite Mendelson’s suspicions that the mayor has already identified money for charter pay, a fiscal impact analysis of the new WTU contract prepared by Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee includes no mention of the charter sector.

It does, however, outline that raises for public school teachers will cost D.C. roughly $449 million through 2026—equivalent pay bumps for charter teachers may not have quite the same price tag, but it would likely be a healthy amount. Donahue testified that leftover federal COVID relief money will cover the “vast, vast majority” of public school teachers’ pay bumps, particularly because the city is required to spend much of that money by fiscal year 2024. That means there probably isn’t much left to fund the charter increases, so Bowser would have to identify others sources.

“The city’s resources are going to be contracting, because all of these one-time dollars are expiring, so we need to make sure that we’re allocating resources according to need,” Huddleston says. “I’m not saying that there is absolutely no need for funding there, but the Public Charter School Board’s own report shows that some [charter organizations] have a lot of extra cash on hand, and their revenues are outpacing expenses.”

The charters are asking, specifically, for some sort of one-time payment to cover the retroactive pay raises and then for an increase in the uniform per student funding formula (UPSFF), which dictates how much money each school gets going forward. (They noted in their letter that Bowser agreed to this same arrangement after the WTU finalized their last contract in 2017.) And a UPSFF change would be substantially more palatable to skeptical lawmakers, since it would mean more money for public schools too; Frumin argued during the hearing that any extra money for charters must be “proportional and fair for both the sectors.”

Mendelson expects that a UPSFF increase will indeed be on the table, considering he’s heard vocal lobbying from the charters that “whatever DCPS gets, the charter sector should get as well, on a per pupil basis.”

“They have been loud and clear about this,” Mendelson says.

But this gets back to concerns about how the charters would spend this money if they got it. Pogue-Lyons said during the Feb. 1 hearing that she “would challenge those charter schools to ensure that, just like the money we negotiated, it goes straight into the hands of our teachers,” since she believes “D.C. taxpayers have concerns about where that money is going.” But there is fundamentally no way to force them to do so.

Patricia Brantley, CEO of the influential Friendship Public Charter School, told the Council in a letter that her organization would commit to using “100% of the funds intended to increase educator compensation for that purpose,” adding that Friendship did the same when it won extra money back in 2017. But Frumin, who got his start analyzing charter school finances in his early days as a local activist, believes that the Council shouldn’t just be taking her word for it.

“Some of these [charters] have made a choice to build reserves as opposed to more fairly pay their teachers, so I think that we need to look at whether or not they should bear a share of this,” Frumin said last week. “That’s often city dollars that are sitting in reserve accounts already.”