Chicago Public Schools is fundamentally changing how it will fund schools next year—giving principals the power to decide how many teachers to hire and what programs to offer.
Next year, every school in the district, including charter schools, will be given a specific dollar amount per student. CPS officials said they are still calculating what that dollar amount will be.
Currently, all charter schools and about 40 district schools are funded on a per-student basis.
Columbia Explorers Academy in the city’s Brighton Park neighborhood is one of them. Principal Jose Barrera shows me around the school.
Colorful posters plaster the classroom walls, paintings hang in the halls, the computer lab is full of up-to-date technology and the health room has a handful of treadmills.
“From furniture to books to computers to playground equipment, whatever the school needs, that money can be utilized for that purpose,” Barrera said.
He’s been running his school using a per-pupil funding plan for eight years. The district has piloted two different per-student formulas in a couple dozen schools, as well as given charter schools money for every student they serve.
It’s not clear how schools currently using the formula will be impacted and it’s also not clear whether overall school budgets will increase, decrease or remain relatively the same.
Critics worry per-student funding gives principals an incentive to hire less-experienced teachers in order to provide more programs or have smaller class sizes.
But Barrera said he doesn’t think that way.
“We don’t look at what you’re making, we look at what you can do for our students and that’s the key,” Barrera said. “Do you want a great teacher or a teacher that doesn’t cost as much?”
CPS budget director Ginger Ostro said they don’t want schools with veteran teachers to take a hit and are planning to set aside money to pay the difference if a school’s staffing costs are above average.
But Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey said the new funding mechanism has “dangerous implications” and “will prove to be destructive in the long run.”
Sharkey said he worries the extra money for veteran teachers could eventually disappear and cuts could be made to per-pupil amounts down the road. He also called the funding formula “the district’s own version of a voucher.” Vouchers exist in some cities and states, giving parents the ability to take the money that would otherwise be spent on their child in the public school system to a private school.
According to CPS, principals will still have to abide by the collective bargaining agreement and other district policies that outline what services and programs must be provided at every school.
CPS’s Ostro also said the district will continue to provide extra positions for special education, selective enrollment, magnet and other specialty programs like International Baccalaureate and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education.
The district will start training principals later this week. School budgets will still have to be approved by central office, the local network chief and the school’s Local School Council, if the school is not on probation.
Farren D’Abell, principal at Frazier International Magnet school on the West Side, has gotten per-student funding for years now too. He said the move will put more responsibility and weight on principals, but can be great if implemented well.
“Decisions are made every day by principals and those affect what happens in your school,” D’Abell said, “If they’re making good decisions, then it absolutely will be a benefit, but if they’re making poor decisions, then it could be a detriment.”