CPS officials on Friday said principals would not face budget cuts if student enrollment in their schools failed to meet projections. 

Schools  enrolling more than the number of students projected will receive additional student-based budgeting of about $4,390 per student, according to a letter sent out by CPS.

No reason was given for the decision.  About half of CPS schools would have lost a total of about $38 million, if these cuts had gone through, according to CPS. The number of students going to district-run schools dropped dramatically in the last year from about 320,000 to 309,000 with some going to charters or contract schools and others leaving CPS.

About 214 schools will get additional $24 million.  CPS officials said they will use money in contingency and an anticipated surplus of Tax Increment Financing money to offset the extra costs..

Last spring, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced that the district was dramatically overhauling the way the district provided money to schools. Rather than providing teachers based on enrollment, the district now pays schools a stipend for each student under a system called student-based budgeting.

CPS also decided not to penalize schools last year—a move that cost the district about $20 million.

The principal of a Southwest Side school nervous about losing money this year put a banner on her website to recruit  25 more students. She eventually got four additional children.

That would have meant a $100,000 budget cut, equal to the cost of employing at least one teacher, she said.

“I can’t afford to cut teachers or staff,” said the principal, who asked not to be identified. “I had already drafted a letter … begging to keep the money.”

She says CPS needs to do a better job of helping principals deal with shifts in enrollment, which she doesn’t see how she can control.

Michael Beyer, a principal at Morrill Elementary School, also on the Southwest Side, applauded district officials for not cutting budgets until they get comfortable with student-based budgeting.  “I think they are trying to smooth out the bumps,” said Beyer, whose school received more than the expected number of students this fall.

A political issue

When Byrd-Bennett announced the move to a student-based budgeting system, she touted it as a way for principals to exert more control over their budgets, something should would have preferred when she was  a principal.

She also said it is a more equitable way to fund schools because each one is allotted a set amount per student, and the amount and rationale for the allocation is transparent.

Student-based budgeting also has been pushed by those promoteingmarket-based school reform. They prefer for the money to follow the student. High-performing schools would attract more students and the poor performers would lose them.  Charter schools have long been funded per pupil.

The decision to hold schools harmless met with skepticism from the Center for Reinventing Education, an organization that promotes choice in school districts. 

Larry Miller, an expert on student-based budgeting with the center, said that when a school gets to keep money for students they don’t have, they are effectively taking money away from students in other schools. He said too often school districts put off fully implementing student-based budgeting for the wrong reasons.

“There is often a lot of political support for the status quo,” he said. “They get overwhelmed by requests to keep things the way they are and they cave.”

But critics of student-based budgeting don’t like it because traditional schools are penalized when charter schools siphon students away.  Also, they worry that principals will be tempted to hire less experienced teachers so their money can be spread further.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey called the decision to hold schools harmless a “tacit admission that this is a fundamentally flawed way of doing the budget.”

He said student based budgeting already has had a “devastating negative consequence” on schools, as principals have become motivated to hire less experienced, poorer paid teachers. Recent data on rehires after last year’s layoffs, he said, showed that more untenured teachers were rehired than those with tenure.

 “Why would someone who is untenured be hired over a tenured teacher who’s already proven to be an effective teacher at CPS? Because they’re cheaper,” he said.

Headshot of Sarah Karp

Sarah Karp

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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