Editor Veronica Anderson

Life isn’t easy when you’re a financial guinea pig. Take Tarkington Elementary, for instance. It is one of three so-called performance schools—district-run schools with special privileges—that are doing a test run of a new funding formula, one that is supposed to make sure that money follows kids. Called per-pupil budgeting, or sometimes student-based budgeting, the formula allocates dollars to schools based on their size and needs of their student populations.

This year, Tarkington was slated to get enough money to run a school for 800 kids, many of them poor and some of them in need of bilingual education. When actual student counts were taken in October, the school had an extra 90 kids enrolled. Ordinarily in a per-pupil budgeting system, this would entitle Tarkington to more money—under the CPS formula, an extra $5,075 per child.

But Chicago Public Schools is working out the kinks of its per-pupil funding formula, so Tarkington Principal Vincent Iturralde, who maxed out class sizes to bolster his school’s budget, is in a holding pattern. District officials say that sometime soon, they will settle on a new formula, one that will smooth out the bottom line impact of large swings in enrollment. Then Tarkington’s current year budget will be recalculated.

If the new formula results in more money, Tarkington will get it, says J.R. Tomkinson, a CPS project manager and go-to guy on per-pupil budgeting. On the other hand, if it yields less, “we will hold them harmless,” he adds. “But we’re waiting to see, instead of giving them extra money and then having to take it away again.”

Such is life for performance schools in the pilot zone. Two others—Pershing West and Uplift—are in the exact opposite position, having fewer students enrolled than anticipated. In the real world of per-pupil budgeting, both schools would lose money, but that won’t happen this year.

Charter schools, which have been using per-pupil budgeting since they were created, haven’t gotten that break. Student counts are taken twice a year, and schools gain or lose money as a result. Also, getting enough money to pay for special education has been a major sticking point. Earlier this year, a special task force was convened to come up with a special ed funding formula for charter schools that would cover expenses beyond staffing. “It’s possible to set a per-pupil rate, or at least a per-classroom rate, despite differences in disabilities,” says Elizabeth Delaney Purvis, director of Chicago Charter School Foundation.

Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools is taking it slow, getting expert advice from a private consulting firm and weighing a plan to convert an elite group of schools to per-pupil funding next year. That’s when the real fun will begin, as district officials try persuading veteran principals, who know their way around traditional budgeting, to get on board.

“Certainly, it is our plan that [these] schools go on per-pupil funding next year, but we’re not going to commit to anything definite,” says Tomkinson.

Already a few of these principals are wary of the impact the new budgeting system will have on their bottom line. Many say they don’t know much about it.

The principal of one North Side school says student-based budgeting sounds more equitable and hopes it will bring more money to schools that are currently losing poverty funding because fewer poor kids are enrolled.

In fact, per-pupil funding will mean less money for schools that enroll better-off kids, unless CPS factors something into the formula to offset that effect.

Unfortunately, most of what the district is doing to address funding equity here has been behind the scenes and without much input from educators and school leaders.

“We expect that in the long-run, per-pupil funding will be a great tool for promoting equity and increasing principal autonomy,” says Tomkinson. “But we do realize that it’s going to be a challenge. That’s why we’re trying to be very careful and deliberate about it.”

Careful and deliberate are good. Inclusive and transparent would be a whole lot better.

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