Better choice, better budgets

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Every spring, thousands of children in urban districts from New York and Boston to Oakland and Seattle turn in lists of schools that they hope to attend in the fall. Those lists are then fed into a computer program that, in a single whirl, churns out school assignments for each child.

In those districts, schools get a crystal-clear picture in the spring of who will be enrolling in the fall—something that would be a boon for Chicago principals, budget planners and class schedulers as they set up shop over the summer.

Such “student matching” or assignment systems have grabbed the attention of Chicago Public Schools officials, who are battling annual enrollment shifts that flummox some schools well into October. According to a Catalyst Chicago analysis, enrollment projections were least accurate for 9th-graders, who are left largely to their own devices to find a high school and sometimes spend the first weeks of the year trying to gain entrée into the city’s best schools. Those that fail then trickle into neighborhood schools late. (See related story)

“If CPS were to adopt the type of managed, student-centered high school enrollment process that has worked in other cities such as Boston and [New York],” says James Dispensa, who heads the Office of School Demographics and Planning, “this business of projecting 9th-grade enrollments by February or March of the prior year would move from being error-prone to highly accurate.”

As a first step, the district will assign all 8th-graders who have not yet secured a spot in selective schools or programs to a neighborhood high school by April 26.

Marguerite Roza, a school finance and budget expert at the University of Washington, says Chicago is well behind the curve in addressing its student assignment policy. Schools need a solid grip on the number of incoming students to plan financially, she explains, especially in districts like CPS, where a top priority is to increase the number of school programs that draw students from across the city.

“[Budgeting] turns out to be more stable,” says Roza. “It’s not based on parents’ whims; it’s based on the student assignments.”

In Seattle, where Roza lives, schools are protected from enrollment shifts in two key ways, she explains: Enrollment is capped for all schools, keeping budgets and staffing levels stable; and student assignments are final.

Students may not transfer from one school to another during the year, even if they move across town. To get into a different school, a student must go through the district’s assignment system.

Still, there’s a cautionary note for Chicago, according to Seattle Public Schools Budget Director Linda Sebring: School choice, and the per-pupil budgeting the district now uses, are proving unpopular and may be on the way out. The reason: infighting among parents who want increased access to their neighborhood schools and those who live near low-performing schools and want to retain access to better ones.

The Seattle schools fall into two categories, Sebring points out: higher-performing schools that attract plenty of students and cap enrollment, and lower-performing schools that have wide swings in enrollment.

Sebring says schools sometimes abused per-pupil budgeting, hiring inexpensive teaching assistants when they should have hired full-time teachers. Chronically under-enrolled schools have had a hard time operating on shoestring budgets, she says.

Roza, on the other hand, says schools that cannot attract enough students should be closed using a strategy similar to that of Oakland Unified School District.

There, she explains, schools that fall short of their projected enrollment face three choices: spend the year trying to beef up enrollment and bring in sufficient cash; reorganize their budgets to operate on less money; or accept bailout money from the district and use it to operate the school through a phased closeout.