This story is part of the Lens on Lightfoot series, a collaboration of seven Chicago newsrooms examining the first year of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Partners are Chalkbeat Chicago, the Better Government Association, Block Club Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE. It is managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News.
DOWNTOWN — Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office pledging to reexamine the way Chicago pays for schools. She held a series of public meetings, convened a working group of experts, and invited the public to weigh in on the much-reviled and impossibly complicated school budget system.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, state and city revenues dried up, and students were scattered to the winds to learn in their homes, an event that deepened existing learning gaps among students.
Advocates insist that budget reform efforts could still lead to important changes, and that the need for equitable funding is all the more urgent. But, in a moment of historical financial uncertainty, how that will be done — and what cuts it could mean in other places — only underscores how difficult it is to revisit school funding in a city that has faced chronic school budget deficits.
“Taking money from an underfunded school to give money to another underfunded school — that is not equity,” Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and an architect of the state’s education formula, said.
Students and families have long said there are have and have-not campuses. The reasons for the disparities are complicated: Many schools say they don’t have enough money to pay for the necessary staff positions to help high-need students, while some schools have parent groups who can raise large sums to supplement existing staff and supplies.
At the school level, the budget picture gets even more complex. The district spends the most per pupil to maintain its most severely under-enrolled schools, such as Tilden High School on the city’s South Side and Manley Career Academy High School on the Far West Side. Some, such as the city’s teachers union, have argued that those schools have the greatest needs — and should get more. While others have wondered if the city should reckon with its shrinking enrollment by redistributing money across fewer campuses, which could mean merging or closing schools, a controversial option in Chicago.
These are the kinds of tough questions facing budget reform efforts, and members of the working group said their efforts are just getting started.
For the last six years, the basis of Chicago’s funding formula has been to give the same per-pupil amount to individual schools, with small variations to address students’ needs and backgrounds. Last year the district made a few changes, protecting schools from a one-year drop in enrollment, targeting resources to high-need schools through “equity grants,” and creating a “poverty metric” to focus investment in schools with large numbers of low-income students.
Some schools, like Roosevelt High School in Albany Park, credited the boosts with helping spur its first enrollment increase in a decade. Others, passed over for the investments despite taking part in the competitive application process for new programs, said the process was unfair.
The changes highlighted a question that has dogged Chicago budget reform for years: In a school district where money is often tight, does more money for one school equal less for another?
On the campaign trail in 2019, then-mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot promised to revisit school funding, and to do so in a way that engaged a broad array of community voices.
Once in office, Lightfoot moved quickly to form the budget committee, bringing in some heavy-hitter school policy experts. The 19-member committee spent the first months of this year learning about how Chicago’s schools are funded, hearing community input at six public meetings held in January and February, and then drawing up a series of recommendations. Members held their last meeting in February, just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic closed schools. About 500 people participated in the public meetings.
The group, which released its recommendations in April, proposed determining an “ideal” level of funding for individual schools and encouraging district officials to lobby for more state and local funding.
The approach was broadly modeled on the so-called “evidence-based” formula used by the state to fund school districts. State leaders adopted the method in 2017, with the goal of determining the amount of money it would take to provide a quality education for students, including those with greater needs, such as English Language learners and special education students.
The plan also had a key political component: It was a tacit acknowledgement that the state wasn’t giving enough money to school districts to meet student needs. With the new approach, school districts learned how much state funding they will get each year, with the highest-need districts, such as Chicago, set to receive boosts in future years.
Marguerite Roza, a school finance expert and the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, said the changes created a more equitable system because the new formula took into account how much school districts were getting in local property taxes and then tried to cover the gap between that amount and what they actually need.
“What changes was the relationship between state and local money,” Roza, who noted that the trend for many districts nationwide was to move toward student-based budgeting, said.
But advocates say the conversation about how much money Chicago schools receive —and where the district and city could find more — is as much a political calculation as it is about the nitty-gritty of recalculating the funding formula.
Martire, a member of the budget committee, echoed a call raised by parents in some of the public meetings: a new funding formula can only be fully effective if there’s more money to spend.
For years, district officials have blamed the state for not giving Chicago Public Schools enough money. The district also has continued to pay for the upkeep of schools closed during the mass closures in 2013, including outside cleaning services for now empty buildings. The Chicago Teachers Union used its strike in the fall, in part, to push the city to dip into non-school funds for the education budget. The district recently signed a new teachers union contract that promised $1.5 billion in new spending over the next five years.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown school districts across the country into an uncertain budgetary future, with many warning the federal government that they’re facing dire cuts. With uncertainty over what school will look like in the fall, the costs of running a socially distanced school system are still up in the air.
The district’s total operating budget for this year was $6.18 billion. More than half of the money comes from local revenue, with the remaining 32 percent coming from state money and 11 percent from federal dollars.
The city budget has a $700 million hole caused by dropping tax revenues after the coronavirus shut downs. The state has managed to hold school funding steady this year. And while the federal government has given districts some relief funding, education associations say they need still more to head off dire layoffs and cuts.
Martire says Chicago Public Schools should be able to get a steady stream of funding from city property tax revenues — even if some mortgage holders default, banks will still shore up those taxes, he said. He also hopes a referendum on a progressive tax revenue system in Illinois will pass this fall, which could bring in billions in new revenue.
That will solve some of the concerns about trying to do more with the same amount of money or even less, says Martire.
Some members of the committee, chief among them the Chicago Teachers Union, say they want the district to look for other sources of revenue.
The bigger question might be how much of an appetite the district will have to revamp its funding formula amidst an uncertain budget year. At a board meeting earlier this year, schools chief Janice Jackson said it’s unlikely the district will move away from a student-based budgeting formula for the fall.
District officials said they already use an approach that helps the poorest schools. This year, they will provide $100,000 in equity grants at more than 100 of the city’s highest-need schools, which were pinpointed using the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Economic Hardship Index. The index uses factors like housing density and poverty level to decide which city areas most need support. The district also tweaked the special education formula to give more money to schools with larger numbers of students with special needs.
Pavlyn Jankov, a researcher with the Chicago Teachers Union, said the union wants a promise from the district not to cut school budgets because of enrollment numbers. “We want student-based budgeting to be tossed out,” said Jankov. “We think, in light of the pandemic, it’s crazy to expect schools to cut staff.”
The budget review process will cover multiple budget cycles, according to the district, and the working group will be reconvened later this year.
Martire applauded the district’s efforts so far. The group “has really done a nice job of having very frank conversations about the different challenges” of reforming the budget formula.
Andrew Askuvich, whose two children attend Jamieson Elementary School in North Park, said at one of the public meetings earlier this year that he knows there are schools with greater needs. Jamieson’s parent group raises money each year to provide each teacher with $300 for school supplies. If the district gets more money, he said it should go first to schools with the highest needs.
“In the end, there’s the understanding that there is just not enough right now,” he said. “For a lot of people [here] it was really about equity, about making sure the schools that have been neglected for decades, that more is done for these schools.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.