Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday April 10th, 2014, 5:38pm

Education Activists Call CPS Per-Student Funding Increase 'A Wash'; Fight Against Turnarounds Continues

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district announced Wednesday that it will increase funding for school budgets next year by $70 million. But education experts and activists stopped short of calling it a big boost for schools.

"It's really not an increase. It's less of a decrease," said Eric 'Rico' Gutstein, faculty associate with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education.

CPS plans to reduce central office spending and use a one-time accounting adjustment so it can allocate the extra $70 million, which will be used to increase its base per-student funding amount by $250.

It looks like a good chunk of the extra per-pupil funds sent to schools would help to offset inflation and contractually-required pay bumps for teachers, CPS spokesman Joel Hood told the Chicago Sun-Times. Next year, the Chicago Teachers Union is owed a 2 percent teacher pay hike, which will reportedly come out to be no less than $50 million.

West Side education activist Dwayne Truss with the Raise Your Hand education coalition called the per-student funding increase "just a wash."

"You're not gaining much from last year other than being able to just hold on to what you already have," he said. 

Meanwhile, school district officals say, “Without this increase, schools would have to make cuts. Maybe heavy cuts,” Hood told the newspaper.

Public schools across Chicago saw significant funding cuts this school year — to the tune of millions of dollars at some schools — as a result of declining enrollment and the cash-strapped district's shift to its per-pupil funding model over the summer. 

Northwest Side parent Edelia Correa, who has a son and daughter at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy, said her school had to eliminate after school programs as well as some special education assistance and teaching positions due to the budget cuts.

Prieto is currently in desperate need of resources to deal with overcrowding, said Correa, a parent with Communities United for Quality Education. A single classroom at Prieto, located in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, has 60 students in it with two teachers. Other classrooms at the school have about 32 students per teacher, she said. Those at Prieto have been calling on CPS to install an annex or mobile units at the school to help address overcrowding, but they have been "ignored,” Correa added.

The $250 base per child is “not going to provide us with the necessary resources to expand our school and deal with the persistent overcrowding,” Correa said, speaking through a translator. “What we need is more resources to expand our school.”

According to CPS, the aforementioned $250 extra per student will impact grades 4-8. Extra per-pupil funds will be a bit higher for each student in grades K-3 and high school, at $267 and $310, respectively. 

"Increases are better than cuts, nobody would disagree increases are better than cuts, but I think that does not solve the problem," Gutstein added. 

Some of the additional school budget money will come from a one-time accounting adjustment that gives CPS 29 extra days to take in property tax revenue. The maneuver looks to extend CPS’ "revenue recognition period" to August 29, 2015. In a news release, CPS said this change, "made in an effort to prevent draconian budget cuts in fiscal year 2015," will result in "several hundred million dollars of additional, one-time revenue" available for the coming year that it would have otherwise collected in 2016.

"That seems to be, as they say, a kicking the can down the road type of situation, which I think has been many of their solutions of, 'We'll borrow now and worry about that accumulation later, because we have an immediate fiscal crisis,'" Gutstein noted.

CPS made it clear that this one-time accounting tweak does not address the district's larger financial challenges, like its pension problem. Absent any "meaningful" pension reform, the district is projecting a $1 billion budget deficit in fiscal year 2016.

The district on Wednesday also reiterated why it thinks per-pupil budgeting is the better school funding approach. Before, schools were funded based on each specific staff position. Principals now have to hire and budget for staff based on the available per-pupil funds.

CPS contends that the new formula creates more funding consistency across the district and gives principals greater control over how funds are spent in their schools.

"Student-based budgeting actually also gives principals more flexibility to ensure that they have the right number of teachers for their students, ensuring small class sizes and teacher to student ratios," CPS argued in its press release Wednesday.

Gutstein, however, thinks per-pupil budgeting is a "bad model."

The formula, he said, creates a powerful financial incentive for schools to get rid of more expensive, veteran educators and higher cheaper teachers with less experience. Principals can also be put in a position where they have to compete with other schools for students. 

"Per-pupil spending, in general, increases the competition and the marketization of schooling on a couple of different levels," he stressed.

Turnaround hearings

Meanwhile, the district held three public hearings Wednesday night at its downtown headquarters over plans to overhaul three schools on academic probation. 

CPS wants the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a controversial school turnaround contractor, to manage Ronald E. McNair in Austin, Dvorak Technology Academy in North Lawndale and Walter Q. Gresham in Auburn-Gresham.  If the Chicago Board of Education approves the proposed school actions at its monthly meeting on April 23, AUSL will bring on its own principal, faculty and staff at the schools after CPS fires all of the existing personnel. 

Truss, with Raise Your Hand, attended the two-hour hearing for McNair, which he said was well attended by parents, students and some teachers. At the hearing, Truss said CPS and AUSL officials touted the academic success of some AUSL-managed schools, but failed to mention the ones that have seen decreases in test scores. 

"They're cherry-picking," he told Progress Illinois, adding that AUSL schools with similar demographics as McNair have had "zero growth."

During his public remarks, Truss said he called out CPS for using "misleading" data to help make its case for turning around McNair. This year, McNair was placed in a newly organized school network that includes Belmont Cragin schools, which were not in McNair's former network, he said. CPS compared McNair's test score data with Belmont Cragin schools. Truss called that "disingenuous."

"You're using the Belmont Cragin data, and you're making comparisons as far back as 2003," he stressed. "The test results haven't even come out in terms of them being in that network, and their performance data is being compared with those schools in the new network."

Community members at the hearing also pointed out that about 25 percent of McNair students have special needs. Many of these students have medical issues, Truss said, and they tend to have more absences than other students. Those absences count against McNair's attendance, which is factored into the school's performance rating.

Valerie Leonard, co-founder of the Lawndale Alliance, attended the Dvorak hearing. AUSL, she argued, is not a better educational option for North Lawndale at this time.

"While it is true that AUSL schools have made significant gains relative to district averages, the AUSL North Lawndale cohort has not outperformed district averages or North Lawndale averages in reading or math," she said in her public remarks.

Overall, Truss said he is not very optimistic about the fate of Dvorak, Gresham and McNair. He called CPS' public input process "all rigged." 

"The decision's been made," Truss said, pointing out that Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale and CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley previously held high-ranking positions at AUSL.

"They're making these decisions, and it's insider dealing," he said.

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