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Chicago School Budgets Arrive Early But Add Little New

Chicago public school principals learned Tuesday that their school budgets will essentially remain flat for next school year, with a small number of programs getting boosts including special education and several specialty academic programs.  

Schools will get $3.1 billion, which includes an extra $29 million for special education. This comes after the school district reduced spending and services last school year.

In her first budget, Schools CEO Janice Jackson also took steps to ensure that schools with declining enrollment — which mostly serve poor students — won’t be slammed with cuts as they have in the past.

In doing this, Jackson is acknowledging the district’s current budgeting system hurts some schools.

That formula, which doles out money on a per-pupil basis, rewards schools with robust and growing student bodies. It was implemented in the early years of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure so that money could follow children to their school of choice.

But Jackson said it is problematic that schools with declining enrollment are resource-starved.

“A lot of our schools on the South and West sides are experiencing those enrollment declines,” she said Tuesday. “This was something that was personally important to me.”

Jackson said a goal of her first budget was to improve “equity and stability.” She also noted research showing that it takes more money to provide a good education to students from poor families than to students from middle-class or rich ones. But, compared to last year, CPS is mostly protecting schools serving poor students from losing funding rather than providing them additional money.

Overall, CPS plans to boost school-level spending for next school year by about $64 million, Jackson told principals in a series of briefings on Tuesday.

Chicago’s 500 district-run schools will see level per-pupil funding plus a 2.5 percent increase to cover contractual staff raises. That is about $107 extra per student, bringing the base amount schools receive per student to $4,397 for elementary school and $5,452 for high school. This slight increase only begins to make up for budget cuts in recent years.

Tuesday’s budget release is much earlier than in recent years — making planning and hiring for principals much easier — and comes at a time of relative financial stability for the school district. Jackson also has said schools won’t lose any money in the fall even if their enrollment dips, as was past practice.

In the past few years, CPS leaders released school budgets midsummer in the midst of fighting for more state money. That fight culminated with a win for CPS and school districts across the state last August with the passage of a new state funding law. It increased state funding for Chicago, and the city also increased property taxes to help with teacher pension costs.

However, the new state school funding formula, which is designed to adequately fund all Illinois schools over time, shows that the largely low-income Chicago school district remains significantly underfunded.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, will get 2.5 percent increase or about $9 million more than last year. This increase comes after a change in state law forced the school district to give charters an additional $37 million for this school year.

CPS officials said it was only fair to provide charter schools the same increase as district-run schools, though a quirk in state law would have allowed them to provide less.

CPS also announced plans to return to a system of funding special education that principals say allows them to more properly staff their special needs programs. CPS also will set aside $6 million for already announced new International Baccalaureate, gifted, magnet, and early college STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.  

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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