Jaffe Report: Bowser's 2018 Budget Lacks Message, Shorts Schools

Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

Decoding the numbers in Mayor Muriel Bowser's 2018 budget and the message they send, I have to wonder whether she's planning to run for a second term.

Budgets are political documents. They allow a city's chief executive to fulfill promises, to reward constituencies, to shape her vision, to bind voters to her.

Washingtonians hoping to see into Bowser's political soul will come away saying -- "Meh."

"It fails to deliver a message," says a veteran political observer. "And it doesn't appeal to or motivate a particular voting block."

For a middling message, let's start with the sales pitch she uses to introduce her budget: "A roadmap to inclusive prosperity."

Whazzat mean?

We all get what Bowser's trying to say. The District is a city distinctly divided by race and class. The mostly white "haves" live in the city's western enclaves, and the predominantly African American "have nots" inhabit the far east neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Wealthy young folks are encroaching on traditional black communities, which are getting diluted one by one as gentrification corrodes their neighborhoods. Anacostia is next.

Meanwhile, the District is drowning in dough. As I have noted in past columns, the chief financial officer reports surpluses every quarter. So deep are D.C.'s pockets that the city ended last year with a $222 million additional surplus in its general fund balance.

Bowser applied some of those funds toward affordable housing, some to homelessness, and some to public safety, but in small doses, according to progressive groups led by the Fiscal Policy institute.

"Instead of devoting our money to housing, schools, and other services," fiscal policy center Ed Lazere said in a statement, "the budget puts tax cuts first."

Bowser's "roadmap" sets a course paved with $100 million in tax cuts, primarily for the middle class. Granted, the tax relief was recommended by a commission, and the D.C. council supports it.

Tax cuts might be politically popular in red states such as Idaho and Kansas, perhaps even in the purple state to our south. Being the bluest of the blue, District voters support leaders who offer solutions to longstanding problems.

"Mayor for Life" Marion Barry seduced voters by serving up hope and pride -- together with contracts and city jobs. Bowser's mentor Adrian Fenty bravely took over D.C.'s public schools that had been failing to educate generations of urban kids. He fixed many schools and set the system on a course of reform.

Bowser could serve the District and herself by fully funding the schools. Instead, she shortchanged students.

"Enrollment is going up," says Catherine Bellinger, director of D.C.'s Democrats for Education Reform, "but the mayor's office sees that as a problem. They don't see that fully funding the schools will keep people in the District and support the tax base."

As James Carville might say: "It's the schools, stupid."

Make the schools work well for students and families so graduates can earn a living, finance housing, stay healthy and raise a family -- end poverty, dare I conclude.

Bowser appointed a commission that recommended increasing per-pupil spending by 3.5 percent. Advocates were hoping for more than 2 percent. Bowser's budget recommends 1.5 percent.

In her submission letter, Bowser says her budget "makes the largest investment in public education in the history of the District of Columbia." That's largely due to $1.3 billion for construction and higher costs for rising enrollment.

Her newly installed D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Antwan Wilson says the funding will "continue to serve students at a level that is comparable to previous years," as opposed to breaking new ground.

Economist and DCPS parent Emily Mechner studied past budgets and found that school funding is not keeping up with inflation.

"The point is, per student spending has been falling in real terms," Mechner says by email, "and the reality for many schools reflects this, because our staffing has been shrinking. The proposed FY18 budget continues this very bad trend, and even accelerates it slightly."

Cards on the table: I joined the board of Reading Partners, a nonprofit that sends volunteers into public schools armed with a precise curriculum proven to improve young students' ability to read. Bowser has volunteered as a Reading Partner, so I was surprised to learn that her budget zeroed out an early literacy program that devoted funds to the program.

The political message Bowser sends in these line items is that helping third graders read is not a priority, compared to giving tax breaks. That's neither good politics nor good governance, and it sure won't help her get elected to a second term, if that's her aim.

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