Chicago Public Schools Get A Budget Boost Despite COVID-19 Economic Downturn

Budgets for Chicago public schools are going up by 4%. CPS leaders say they’ll monitor COVID-19 developments and will adjust if necessary.

Andrew Gill / WBEZ
Andrew Gill / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools Get A Budget Boost Despite COVID-19 Economic Downturn

Budgets for Chicago public schools are going up by 4%. CPS leaders say they’ll monitor COVID-19 developments and will adjust if necessary.

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Chicago principals received individual school budgets Tuesday that boost total spending at the school level for next year by about 4%, for a total of $3.125 billion. This includes what the school district calls the biggest one-year increase for special education.

This increased budget comes despite potential revenue losses resulting from the downturn in the economy due to COVID-19. But CPS CEO Janice Jackson said she and other officials are fully aware of the uncertainty in which these budgets are being released.

“Based on the information we have at our disposal, we believe we can guarantee the budgets,” she said. “We are also cognizant of the reality that we live in with COVID-19 and are monitoring that. If adjustments need to be made, we will absolutely do that.”

CPS also didn’t reveal whether it is preparing for extra spending for remote learning, should it continue in the fall, or for extra instruction to make up for any learning lost due to the school shutdown.

Jackson said she is focused on providing robust budgets to schools so they could be ready to offer up quality in the fall. The school district also is compelled by the Chicago Teachers Union contract, agreed upon after a lengthy strike last fall, to increase funding in some areas, including providing a 3% raise for staff.

The rest of the school budget  the part that comes from central office — will be released this summer.

Though principals received their budgets on Tuesday, the school district had yet to provide them to the public. But here is what we know so far:

Controversial school funding method maintained

The school district is continuing its controversial student-based budgeting system. That’s the practice of giving schools a per-pupil amount for each student enrolled. The stipends will be increasing by 3% to pay the promised staff raises.

Student-based budgeting has been criticized as being inherently inequitable. Schools that have big and stable populations, and those that are growing, get more money overall and therefore can offer more robust programming to students than schools that have shrinking enrollment.

This has been a particularly big problem in recent years as the school district’s population has been shrinking. Schools on the South and West sides serving poor students have seen particularly steep drops in enrollment, sending many of them in a downward spiral.

To ensure that no school sees too big a drop in funding, the school district has provided grants. This year, it increased those grants to $44 million, up from $31 million the previous year.

Included in that $44 million, it also gave $100,000 extra to 100 schools that serve the neediest students, according to something known as Chicago’s Economic Hardship Index developed by the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“We often times hear principals talk about the decisions they have to make between having a robust world language program or an arts program, so if a school receives this $100,000, the principal doesn’t have to make that trade off,” Jackson said. The CEO said she could also see schools using this money to hire a reading specialist or other similar positions.

Still, the Chicago Teachers Union sent out a press release saying the most critical thing that Jackson must do is “move equity from paper to reality, which requires an immediate end to student-based budgeting.”

Jackson insisted on Tuesday that student-based budgeting is not the problem, but rather that people don’t understand how it works. She said people are really upset about is that schools don’t receive enough money in general.

She noted the state has adopted an evidence-based funding model that, if fully funded, would provide enough for schools to have “everything that our hearts desired.” But the state would have to come up with more than $5 billion in new dollars over time to make that happen. This year, the yet-to-be-passed state budget calls for a $350 million increase for public education in Illinois. Funding for CPS and other schools have gone up each year since 2017 because of the evidence-based model.

Special education funding gets a boost

Chicago Public School officials also announced that special education spending on teachers and aides is being increased by almost $100 million. But they also said they are changing the way they are allocating money to schools for special education — a prospect that immediately raised questions and suspicions.

Currently, the school system provides money for special education based on the particular needs of each disabled student as outlined in their individualized education plan.

Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said it is moving to a system in which schools get a teacher position for a set number of special education students in each grade. For example, schools will get one teacher position for seven elementary school students.

“It is really designed to ensure equity,” McDade said. One of the perennial problems in special education has been that parents who advocate more effectively can get more services for their children, and this can create an imbalance.

But when the school district tried this a few years ago, it did so to mask budget cuts, causing big problems. After a state inquiry, it was forced to go back to looking at individual needs in assigning positions.

Another problem: Though the school district may open many more special education teacher positions, it is doubtful it will be able to fill them. There is an extreme shortage of special education teachers and as of March 31, CPS had 309 vacant special education teacher positions.

Separately, CPS is planning to spend $13 million to increase the number of nurses and social workers in schools. This is to meet commitments made during the teachers strike that were ultimately written into the teachers contract.

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