District Digest: Truants and toddlers need more school
Many lawmakers have taken to heart President Obama’s proposal for mandatory preschool for all children and are enacting legislation along those lines. D.C. Council member Marion Barry put forward just such a plan for the District.
Barry’s bill would change the minimum age at which children are required to attend school from five to three. The district government already guarantees a public preschool education to all 3 year-olds: Barry would require parents to take advantage of this education or send their kids to a private or parochial school equivalent. Some experts find the proposed change unnecessary, given that 13,000 out of 15,000 of the city’s three year-olds already go to preschool.
Many other education experts believe mandatory preschool attendance would go a long way towards bridging the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their better-off counterparts. Many programs already demonstrate the effects preschool can have on a student’s education. The AppleTree Institute, a D.C. charter preschool, for example, teaches three and four year-old at-risk and otherwise disadvantaged students. The average AppleTree Institute student improved from the 35th to the 75th percentile in his or her two years there, according to Governing.
The surplus goes fast
At the end of January, the D.C. government announced a 2012 budget surplus of over $400 million. The following weeks were spent predicting what Mayor Vincent Gray would use the surplus for. D.C.’s financial future, at least for the next year, seemed secure. A pre-budget-season briefing, held by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, however, suggested that D.C.’s money will not go as far as the government had once hoped.
The two largest hits to the city’s budget will be a general rise in the cost of maintaining government services and growth in education. It will cost the government $107 million more this year than last year to keep its projects and programs active, according to the Post. Additionally, school attendance is expected to rise, amounting to $60 million in additional costs for the District.
“I think we have a harder problem than a lot of people think we do,” Mayor budget director Eric Goulet told the Post. “People think we have riches to dispense, and that’s not the case. … This is going to be a very, very difficult budget.”
These and other expenses leave the city with an estimated $40 million budget gap for 2014. This figure doesn’t even take into consideration Gray’s plan to spend upwards of $100 million on low-income housing improvements. The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development lists several ideas for how this money should be appropriated.
The D.C. government faces the challenge of raising the necessary revenue to match rising costs. An end to Congress’s march into sequestration would return a significant amount of revenue.
Gray will submit a spending proposal for 2014 to the City Council on Mar. 28. More details on how much money will be required for Gray’s housing plan will be released next week by Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force.
Stopping truancy in D.C.
D.C.’s truancy ranks among the worst of any city in the nation. The problem is so severe that some city government officials believe that the parents of truants should be prosecuted. Council member and Chair of education committee David Catania (I-At Large) has proposed a bill to establish a system of punishment for parents of truant children, mandating prosecution after 20 days of unexcused absence from school.
Although such efforts to change truancy are novel, truancy itself is far from a new issue for the city. The Post reported in November that truancy in D.C. is five times the national average. Data from the 2003-2004 school year listed 20,845 chronic truants (defined as missing 21 days of class) and a truancy rate of 23.5 percent. In 2010, that number was virtually unchanged.
According to Greater Greater Washington, under current law, parents already can be held responsible and be punished if their children skip school. The current penalty is a $100 fine or up to 5 days in jail, if the child misses more than 2 days of school, but this measure is virtually completely unenforced.
Catania’s bill would actually lessen the short-term penalties of truancy for parents but would make prosecution mandatory after 20 missed school days. The initial penalty would be a community service requirement or parenting classes.
DCist reported that the Gray administration opposes Catania’s plan. According to D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan, his office already handles the prosecution of chronic the parents of truant children and toughening punishments on parents will not actually encourage kids to go to school.
Photo: Madgerly via Flickr