Some more equal than others

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From the perspective of student-based budgeting, schools with the fewest poor students and schools with selective enrollments have padded budgets. At the other end of the funding scale, large and overcrowded schools, many of which are mostly Latino, are likely to be shortchanged.

These are among the findings of a Catalyst Chicago analysis of school-level budget and enrollment data. The analysis used a data-based tool developed by researchers to identify inequity among schools in a district.

Using this tool, one in four schools (27 percent) was found to be receiving significantly more than its equitable share of funds from the district.

Another 17 percent of schools were identified as getting significantly less than their fair share. More than half of all schools analyzed (55 percent) fell within the range of equitable funding.

“It’s understandable, but it’s not OK,” says Diana Lauber of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform. “There was a real push for equity [in the late 1980s]. It’s appropriate that people take a look at it again.”

CPS is no different than most urban districts where money is distributed to schools primarily through staffing formulas, which allocate a specific number of positions rather than a specific number of dollars per pupil. Marguerite Roza, who studies school district budgets as a researcher at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, says Chicago’s inequities top her findings in many other districts.

Roza and other experts blame a hodgepodge of factors, from teacher salaries to complex accounting practices to programs that get funded through various sources. All three come into play in Chicago, as well as special circumstances—like converting a large high school into several smaller schools, or displacing families in areas where public housing is being demolished—that affect enrollment.

Fixed costs, like the average high school principal salary, $111,500, are diluted when schools have more students. For a school like Lindblom, which enrolled only 114 students in September, that average salary becomes $978 per student, whereas Lane Tech, with more than 4,400 enrolled, pays a mere $25 per student.

“Small schools get an advantage from that. The small schools are just slightly more inefficient,” says John Easton of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. “Should bigger schools be compensated for that?”

District aware of inequities

District officials agree that enrollment is a major factor in schools’ bottom line. They also blame discrepancies on the types of classes schools offer, especially in high schools. Some programs, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, help a school qualify for more teachers than it would get under regular staffing formulas.

“It’s really hard to just grab the budget book and just figure all this out,” says Pedro Martinez, CPS budget director. “I will have done my job if when you look at a school and you look at its performance, it’s not [doing worse or better] because of the lack or excess resources they get.”

Martinez admits there are inequities, but he says the Catalyst analysis included only a portion of the district’s total budget, and not every CPS school.

Catalyst analyzed the distribution of $1.7 billion, which is about 43 percent of the district’s $4 billion fiscal 2005 operating budget, and about 63 percent of the $2.8 billion that CPS allocates directly to schools. Lack of transparency in the district budget made it necessary to exclude funds budgeted for student transportation, building operations, food services, special education and early childhood. The analysis included some 88 percent of the district’s 613 schools. (See story)

In all, Chicago allocates some 54 percent of its budget directly to schools, fairly typical for urban districts that use a similar budgeting approach, says Roza. Another $200 million that CPS budgets centrally for citywide services caught the researcher’s attention because those funds are spent at schools at the district leadership’s discretion. “That’s a lot of money and it’s worth figuring out where it’s going, and to make sure that it’s in line with the district’s priorities,” Roza notes.

Connecting the dots

Catalyst found that schools with the fewest poor students are likely to get more funding than the district average. Roza notes this finding indicates that federal and state poverty funds are not giving schools with more poor students a clear financial advantage—a violation of federal law.

Lauber from the Cross City Campaign was likewise surprised. Connecting the dots, she suggests a tie to another Catalyst finding: That selective enrollment and magnet schools are also likely to get more funding. Almost half of the schools with more students from middle-income families are either selective or magnet schools, compared to only 10 percent in the schools with higher concentrations of poverty.

Selective and magnet schools typically offer a suite of special classes that tend to attract a diverse—and often wealthier—set of students. This relatively small group of schools also gets nearly a third of the $60 million for desegregation programs that was analyzed by Catalyst.

At the opposite end of the scale are large and overcrowded schools, which are likely to receive less district funding per pupil. Many of these schools are predominately Latino.

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that overcrowded schools get less because they have larger class sizes,” say Lauber.

Sawyer Elementary School, an overcrowded, high-achieving Latino school in Gage Park, gets only 79 percent of the district average funding. The school enrolled some 926 bilingual students last year—the most in the district—and got about $155 per pupil for supplemental bilingual education in this year’s budget. The district average for bilingual, according to Catalyst’s analysis, is $639 per pupil.

By contrast, Falconer Elementary in Belmont Cragin got $515 for each of its 672 bilingual students. Officials in the CPS Office of Language of Culture decide where to budget bilingual funds.

Sawyer’s large overall enrollment also trims its per-pupil funding. If the school were one of the new Renaissance schools, it would gain more than $2,000 per student.

Further dissection

Teacher salaries can also play a part. The district allocates positions, not dollars, when budgeting, creating a wide range of average teacher salaries—from $44,000 to more than $65,000—across the schools studied.

Martinez dismisses the impact that teacher salary levels have on equity. “Teachers are not the same as they were 20 years ago,” says Martinez, noting the increase in teachers hired by the district through alternative certification programs. Schools, in general, have a relative mix of new and experienced teachers on staff, he explains.

Of special note in the analysis are budgets for 12 small schools recently carved out of three large high schools—Orr, Bowen and South Shore. Small enrollment helps boost the bottom line for these schools, but the funding advantage these schools have over larger regular schools is likely greater than the results in Catalyst’s analysis.

As part of the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative, these schools received millions in start-up money from grants made by a consortium of funders led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Since these grants are made directly to schools, the money doesn’t appear in the district’s school-level budgets. About $1 million in competitive grants that were funneled through the district was included in the analysis.

A well-known fact that high schools get more money per pupil than elementary schools was confirmed by the Catalyst analysis. Staffing formulas favor high schools, and books and supplies are more expensive, notes Lauber. Also, high schools are the sole beneficiary of extra funding for vocational education. Catalyst found the district average per-pupil funding for vocational programs was $622.

Political clout is another factor in funding equity, says Roza. In other districts that she’s studied, Roza found that savvy principals who knew how to negotiate with district budget officials had a positive impact on their school’s bottom line.

“Administrators would tell me, ‘Oh yeah, that guy’s been doing this for years. He knows how to work the system,'” she recalls.

Lauber believes clout plays a lesser role in Chicago, where local school councils have some authority over school budgets.

Most of the funds examined by Catalyst are budgeted according to strict staffing formulas, but some schools landed extra dollars for special projects. Ariel Community School and Wells Prep, for instance, split $623,400 for small schools projects. Some 29 schools snared a total of $4 million for International Baccalaureate programs. Senn High School got $194,000 for a program to assist refugee children.

Is there a simpler way?

A proponent of student-based budgeting, Roza says it helps eliminate confusion and forces school leaders and districts to consider equity. But making the switch systemwide is no guarantee those funds will be spent wisely.

“Does it make sense to give [lackluster school leaders] more control over their budgets and instructional decision making?” asks Roza.

CPS officials emphatically say no. But as Martinez says, academic performance shouldn’t fluctuate according to financial resources.

Roza says districts that have switched to student-based budgeting have gradually shifted more dollars into school-level budgets. In a student-based budgeting system, principals and LSCs would view differently the $200 million now controlled by CPS leaders.

“School leaders start imagining their resources in dollar amounts,” she says. “They start getting territorial.

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to myers@catalyst-chicago.org.