District officials are warning principals that their schools may lose poverty dollars due to an inexplicable undercount of low-income students this year. Credit: Close-up of writing hands of students at school/Shutterstock

An apparent undercount of low-income children in Chicago Public Schools could mean a loss of money for some schools this coming fall.

The district has known about the problem for months and struggled to fix it, but just warned principals in an email last week that they might lose money if they don’t verify their numbers and correct any undercounts.

CPS officials believe data-gathering mix-ups are to blame for a drop in the count of poor children in schools. According to the district’s latest figures from March, the count fell by 10,000 to 11,000 students this year compared to last — which is more than twice the drop in overall district enrollment.

The apparent undercount is in contrast to years of steadily rising poverty rates in CPS schools, and comes at a time when the numbers of children living in poverty is on the rise in Chicago and across the nation. Errors that go uncorrected by schools “could have dramatic impacts on school budgets for FY17,” CPS stated in an email to principals last week—during spring break.

The mixup affects how CPS allocates state and federal poverty dollars to schools; the district expects to receive about $500 million in poverty grants next year.

The potential loss of money is another blow to schools that already face the likelihood of severe cuts because of the district’s ongoing fiscal crisis. Wendy Katten of the parent group Raise Your Hand says the uncertainty around poverty rates adds to an aura of “utter chaos.”

“The last thing our schools need is more budget uncertainty,” Katten says. “We need stable revenue and a competent central office.”

It’s impossible to say which schools stand to potentially lose the most money, though. Despite repeated requests, CPS officials declined to give Catalyst Chicago the school-level data that would show which schools posted the greatest losses of poor students, although some schools may have posted losses of more than 30 percent.

District officials say they’re reaching out to schools with “significant drops” in the number of children classified as low-income to help them reconcile their data before projected budgets for next school year are finalized.

In a statement, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the district is “committed to making sure that our students and schools receive the funds they are entitled to receive, especially assistance for students who come from low-income backgrounds. Before school budgets are released, CPS will exhaust all possible efforts to make sure that poverty information is as accurate as possible, so that our schools and students get the funds they deserve.”

How the poverty count fell—or didn’t

For months, the district has given different explanations for why the count of poor children in schools has declined and the poverty rate is now 83 percent, the lowest in years and a drop from 86 percent last year. Data on the CPS web site from the beginning of the school year shows an even more drastic decline of some 24,500 poor students, which officials say is incorrect but have not taken down.

Meanwhile, the number of Chicago children living below the poverty line steadily increased between 2010 and 2014, according to U.S. Census estimates. With low-income children the most likely to enroll in public schools, that increase would seem to point to more poor students—and more money for schools that enroll them.

District officials initially blamed school clerks, claiming they clicked the wrong option in a drop-down menu on software used to track income data. The district said it didn’t know how to correct the problem from the back end, and that principals were told about it in March and given two weeks to correct errors.

However, more than a dozen principals said at the time that they hadn’t heard a word about the problem. “I am not aware of this,” one high school principal said. “I think that’s something somebody would have flagged.”

Who’s to blame?

Just this week, CPS officials switched from blaming the computer entry problem and cited issues with a procedure called direct certification, in which the state identifies students whose families receive public assistance, food stamps or Medicaid, or are in foster care, and gives the information to school districts.

CPS uses the direct certification data to help determine its poverty rates and allocate money to schools. CPS supplements that data by sending home paperwork for parents to fill out with their income information, as not all low-income families, including some who are undocumented, apply for public aid.

Now CPS says it gave the state a list of thousands of students whom the district believes were wrongly left out of the direct certification files. Plus, CPS says a temporary change in the direct certification formula, which omits Medicaid data this year, complicates the problem.

Meanwhile, some principals and school clerks wonder whether the decline stems from the district’s 2014 decision to opt into a federal program that allows all students to receive free lunch. Some principals and clerks told Catalyst they believe fewer low-income families are filling out the income paperwork, now known as “fee waiver forms.”

Others said they suspect families may be more honestly reporting higher incomes and family sizes, because they know their children will get free lunch regardless of their income bracket. Schools still rely on the income paperwork to ensure that they receive their fair share of poverty dollars.

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, has another suspicion. She wonders how many low-income families simply left the district after the 2013 school closings.

The district “can’t close 50 schools and think that’s not going to hurt you financially,” she says. “A lot of people are absolutely disgusted with what’s going on.”

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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