Chicago Public Schools launches a new, ‘more equitable’ funding model

While legislators in Springfield consider a bill that would prevent Chicago Public Schools from closing schools or making changes to its admissions policies through 2027, district officials have begun finalizing a budget they claim will benefit all of the district’s schools — neighborhood and selective enrollment — in the upcoming school year.

The district’s proposed budget for the 2024-25 school year will use a new method for distributing funds so that all of the city’s more than 600 public schools will be guaranteed a minimum number of teachers in core subjects such as reading and math, as well as in arts and physical education, according to budget documents provided by CPS.

The new approach will protect the robustness of the city’s “strongest schools,” while ensuring those in high-poverty areas aren’t starved of resources that helped produce recent academic gains, district CEO Pedro Martinez told the Tribune last week. But, with a $391 million deficit projected, something will have to give. And, central office expenses, such as vendor payments which surpassed $2.8 billion this school year as of March 15, according to CPS procurement data, are currently under review, Martinez said.

“It’s not easy to do,” Martinez said, regarding cuts to district-level operating costs. “But we made the decision to protect the schools, because this funding model we feel is much more equitable, much more transparent.”

The new rubric also guarantees a minimum number of administrators and support staff, such as counselors, per school and establishes baseline ratios of various staff positions to students.

At schools where larger portions of the student population need access to additional resources, such as counseling or special education, CPS’ revamped funding model provides more discretionary funding per student and smaller ratios of educators to students in the building.

All high schools, for example, are assured a baseline ratio of, at most, 1 teacher for every 21 students in the building and $1,095 per student in discretionary funds. High schools demonstrating the greatest need are assured a ratio as low as 18 to 1.

The district will provide elementary schools a baseline of $365 per student in discretionary funds and a maximum ratio of 1 teacher for every 26 students. That decreases to as low as 1 teacher for every 22 students at elementary schools with the most need.

A school’s degree of need is determined by what is called an “Opportunity Index” score. The score is based on a formula that includes a school’s percentage of vulnerable students and community characteristics, including poverty and historical funding. Out of 60 possible points, larger scores demonstrate greater need. Scores across the district currently range from 14 to 52.

For every Opportunity Index point above 14, the district will increase a school’s funding by $12 per student at elementary schools and $18 per student at high schools.

Of the district’s more than 600 schools, 430 are also eligible for federal Title I funds, dedicated to schools with a high percentage of low-income students. Eligible schools will receive an additional $6 per student per point above a certain benchmark in the federal government’s separate poverty index rubric.

“Unapologetically, if a school is in a higher poverty community, they’re going to have smaller class sizes, they’re going to have some additional resources. It doesn’t mean that it’s being taken away from another school,” Martinez said, alluding to a flurry of misinformation that sparked fears a Dec. Board of Education resolution to shift focus to neighborhood schools would prompt selective enrollment school closures. That will not occur, officials have repeatedly said.

“It does mean though, that at the central level, we have to really find these efficiencies. And it also means that we have to be committed to work together with our unions and our city to make sure we maximize our revenues,” said Martinez, a CPS alumni who studied business and began his education career in school finance before becoming a superintendent in Nevada during the Great Recession in 2009. He was appointed CPS chief in 2021.

Over the past year, with federal pandemic emergency relief funds set to expire in Sept., CPS has been lobbying state legislators and the Governor’s office for more of the money that a 2017 state funding reform determined CPS and other high-need districts are owed.

Lobbying efforts have yet to decrease the deficit. But, Martinez said he remains optimistic, after CPS recently ranked first among 40 large urban districts in research conducted by Harvard and Stanford universities that measured 3-8 grade students’ reading scores on standardized tests, to gauge districts’ progress in recouping pandemic-era learning loss. In math, the Education Recovery Scorecard study ranked CPS 13th among 43 large urban districts.

“We’re showing people the evidence that it’s working,” Martinez said of now-dwindling federal relief funds which he said allowed the district to adopt a new curriculum and smaller class sizes; hire approximately 2,000 teachers and thousands of paraprofessionals who work with students with disabilities; and fund preschool and afterschool programs.

“Our district is showing significant academic growth at all levels, whether it’s elementary or high school, and we’re exposing our children to more enrichment than ever before,” he said, adding that the district’s “alignment” with the administration of former teacher Mayor Brandon Johnson and the Chicago Teachers Union, which funded his campaign, provides “more opportunity than ever before” to protect the recent investments and secure additional funding.

“There’s more of a collaborative approach,” Martinez said, adding that this year, the city provided CPS the largest amount of TIF surplus funds it has received in recent memory. “We’re having those conversations about, ‘How do we continue that? What other opportunities exist,’” he said.

CPS could also see the size of the projected deficit grow, however. The projected deficit of $391 million doesn’t account for the cost of collective bargaining agreements, which CPS is negotiating with the Chicago Teachers Union and Service Employees International Union Local 73, which represents crossing and security guards, special education classroom assistants and cafeteria workers.

As it stands, CPS proposed budget aims to provide a minimum of 10 core classroom teachers and three “holistic” teachers, providing art and physical education classes, at every school. Funding for a principal, assistant principal, clerk, counselor and part-time assistant is also assured at every school.

CPS will also fund increased positions based on the size and needs of the school.

For every five core classroom teachers, CPS will fund an additional holistic teacher. For every 600 students at elementary schools and every 500 students at high schools, CPS will fund an additional counselor. And at 430 district-run schools eligible for federal Title I funds, which are allocated to schools with a high percentage of low-income students, CPS will fund an interventionist teacher to work one-on-one and in small groups with students at risk of falling behind.

“Families are seeing these investments in action. They’re seeing the afterschool programs, they’re seeing the summer programming, they’re seeing teachers that are freed up to help children when they need help,” Martinez said. “Protecting those investments and, of course, the staff that are behind it, has really been our top priority.”