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Jan Resseger hopes that Pedro Martinez, the new superintendent in Chicago, will eliminate the disastrous policy of “student-based budgeting.” The importance of the topic is not limited to Chicago. School officials in Los Angeles are considering a similar program. Everyone needs to learn the lessons that Jan describes. Schools in impoverished communities suffer most from this budgeting method and are “trapped by student based budgeting in an accelerating cycle of decline.”
Martinez previously served the Chicago Public Schools as Arne Duncan’s chief financial officer. WBEZ’s Sarah Karp summarizes what have been some positive—and urgently needed—changes in the school district since Martinez left in 2009: “The good news for the new CEO is that CPS is relatively financially stable, at least in the short term. The school district received more than $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money to be spent over three years… Former CPS CEO Janice Jackson and Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade made equity a focus. They sent extra money to schools serving poor students. They also gave schools the opportunity to apply for specialties, such as dual language or International Baccalaureate programs. In the past, the mayor and school leaders picked which schools got these special programs without any indication as to how or why they were chosen. Jackson and McDade also developed curriculum for every grade and every subject that they touted as a first for the district.”
However, enormous challenges persist. First are the politics. Karp continues: “Few people would disagree that the Chicago Teachers Union and the mayor have a toxic relationship.”
But the biggest problem is structural—at the heart of the operation of the school district: providing quality programming in a district that operates with a plan called “student based budgeting.” Karp explains: “Since Martinez left Chicago Public Schools in 2009, enrollment has dropped by some 80,000 students. This has hit neighborhood high schools particularly hard, leaving some with very few students. At the same time, the school district changed how it funds schools so they get a set amount per student, leaving low enrollment schools with limited budgets. The end result: schools with few students in huge buildings that can’t afford robust programming.”
Student based budgeting sets up a race to the bottom. Once students begin to leave, the district cuts the school’s budget, which inevitably means reducing teachers and diminishing programming. And the downward cycle accelerates.
Student based budgeting was instituted in 2014. Several years later in 2019, researchers at Roosevelt University evaluated the plan: “In 2014, Chicago Public Schools adopted a system-wide Student Based Budgeting model for determining individual school budgets… Our findings show that CPS’s putatively color-blind Student Based Budgeting reproduces racial inequality by concentrating low budget public schools almost exclusively in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods. The clustering of low-budget schools in low-income Black neighborhoods adds another layer of hardship in neighborhoods experiencing distress from depopulation, low incomes, and unaffordable housing.”
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