CN Aug 14, 2014


Chicago Public Schools has announced that it’s making FY 2015 a smidge longer – like about 60 days. That’s so it can double-dip on tax revenue to fill this year’s budget hole. But, you ask, won’t that make FY 16 that much shorter, and thereby create a whole new, and even worse crisis the year after Rahm Emanuel’s presumed re-election? Well, says, Catalyst-Chicago’s Sarah Karp, we’ve sen big, fat crises many times before.

“Like when Rahm came into office before, it was the exact same thing,” she explains. “He said, oh, we have no money. We can’t pay your 4% raises, and it’s a choice between raising class sizes or we’ve got to give these greedy teachers a raise. And what’s interesting is if Rahm doesn’t become Mayor, and someone else becomes mayor, how that person will deal with it.

Of course, that person could, conceivably, be Karen Jennings Lewis. But more on that later.

“There is a genuine budget crisis,” says the Sun-Times Editorial Page’s Kate Grossman. “There’s no question. We on the editorial pages have supported reducing the pensions for CPS teachers as much as we hate to do it. It’s unsustainable. It’s not the teachers’ fault. CPS screwed them, and the State screwed them, but they don’t have enough money. And if you want to make sure the pension system remains solvent, you either flood it with new revenue, or you cut pensions. Or maybe some combination. But something has to give.”

The new 6.8 billion budget isn’t just about massive budget holes and tricky ways to fill them. It also lets us in on some significant changes within the system that will affect Chicago Public Schools for years to come. At the heart is “student-based budgeting”, something that was introduced last year and is now having profound effects at the school level.

For example, says Grossman, under the new plan, about $6,000 follows your kid to whatever school she attends.

“The problem,” Grossman explains, “is whatever the amount is, is not enough, and so when a student chooses school B over school A and her money leaves, it was never even enough at your original school, so the loss of those dollars is really devastating. And it’s this downward cycle. If a school starts losing enrollment, they were probably already struggling anyway because they were under-resourced. Then they lose money so they lose programming and teachers, and then they can’t recruit more kids, and it has a really devastating impact.”

“What Chicago’s been moving toward,” she continues, “is this choice system, away from the neighborhood-based schools. You can chose a charter, you can choose a magnet, selective enrollment, magnet fine arts, lots of  choices. And having this student-based budgeting is the linchpin of letting that system flourish. If you think about it, that allows for choice, right? You take your dollars and you can choose. In theory it’s a great idea,but in an under-resourced school system, it’s devastating for schools that lose enrollment, often through no fault of their own.”

Many consider charters the culprits, draining students away from traditional schools. In actuality, Karp says, they only account for about 20% of the student loss, but there are other factors that funnel money from neighborhood schools to the charters.

“CPS, on top of the student-based budget amount, gives charter schools a lump-sum extra,” Karp asserts. “Their argument is that there are a lot of in-kind services that traditional public schools get, and we need to make up for that. But it’s about $2000 more than the base budget that the charter schools are getting. And that money increased this year compared to last year. so there is a reason why charter schools, on top of their enrollment, which is increasing, are getting more money. So it’s about priorities, and ideology too.”

And it’s starting to get down and dirty. “It is a fight for students, says Karp. “We’re hearing from principals who have teachers going door-to-door. And the charters are going door-to-door. I’ve been offered seats for my children at schools that I didn’t even apply for. It’s basically like – please, is your child breathing? Bring him…”

Grossman tells us about a story she did last year on Lakeview High School. “It’s a neighborhood high school that’s really trying to break into that upper tier,” she explains. “They got an early-college STEM Program, so they got a big investment in new science labs and all that – but at the same time, because of student-based budgeting, and because of budget cuts, their budget got whacked…so that really undercut their effort to create a successful STEM program. It turned out that they had to cut teachers, and so you kind of layer these things on top, but what’s the foundation?”

As we’ve discussed previously, neighborhood high schools are really taking the brunt of the new budgeting. They’re shrinking dramatically. “There’s really not a stated plan for neighborhood high schools,” Karp tells us. “What is the plan for Bowen or Corliss, or Hope, or Robeson or Marshall? I suspect that there are some people who think that there should be selective enrollments, magnets, charters, and alternatives. And that neighborhood high schools are going to be akin to alternative schools, and maybe run by private operators eventually.”

There’s an effect that all of this competition from new schools is having academically, too. “Charter schools are really pulling – whereas there’s always been selective schools and magnet schools – they’re pulling that tier of middle, C-students out of neighborhood schools.” Karp says.

And Grossman worries that, as others leave, these old high schools are left with an increasingly difficult, challenged student body. “These are a very distinct student population that has very intense needs that you have to deal with, not punish them for it,” she says.

“What do you expect? You look at the kids who are coming into the building,” explains Grossman. “They’re coming in so far behind grade level, then you whack these schools because the kids are low-performing. It’s outrageous to me to blame these schools when you’ve drained away all of the higher-performing kids, and this is who they’re educating, and then you blame them for what we’ve handed them. I think that’s profoundly unfair.”

We talk briefly about Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s future with CPS. Both journalists believe that she’ll stick it out through the March 2015 municipal election, but may not last long after that. There’s some agreement that Mayor Emanuel needs her to be with him through the campaign, and that her departure would send a bad signal.

And Grossman offers a somewhat surprising assessment of  CEO Byrd-Bennett. “I think she’s certainly not a big fan of charter schools.  She’s  a big supporter of neighborhood schools. I don’t know how much she’s going to be able to do in that regard, but she’s a former principal. She knows the score about what happens when you drain all the top kids.”

Turning to politics, how will CPS be affected after the inauguration of Governor Rauner? Well, says Karp, “The State has this Charter School Commission, and I would be nervous that Chicago would suddenly get all of these charters that they didn’t want. It would be like the wild-wild west – schools opening without CPS knowing anything about it – it would be crazy.”

Unless, that is, our new Mayor, Karen Lewis, puts a stop to it. Is Mayor Lewis a far-fetched idea?  Karp says she’s starting to believe it’s possible. And what about the Sun-Times Editorial Page’s Grossman? “Yea, I think the people would vote for her,” she concludes.



About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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