Education plan: Big on ideas, short on money

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For the first time since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took over CPS, his CEO laid out an education plan, calling for high academic standards, more focus on parental engagement and greater accountability for the district, including an annual scorecard.

Among specifics called for in the plan announced by Barbara Byrd-Bennett are more arts education—the district and the city announced a $1 million investment in arts education in May—and mental health services. 

The plan also reiterates some previously-announced initiatives, such as full-day kindergarten for all children and the creation of more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) schools. The plan also makes mention of the move to the Common Core State Standards.

But Byrd-Bennett’s announcement at Westinghouse High School raised immediate questions about how the board would pay for the initiatives. And following the announcement, Board President David Vitale confirmed that principals, who received their school budgets just last week,  will have to make do with less: On average, school budgets are a few percentage points down from last year, although the cuts varied from school to school.

This year CPS made a radical shift in its budgeting practice, giving schools a set amount of money per pupil for core instruction, instead of paying for a specific number of teachers based on enrollment. 

“It is tough,” Vitale said. “There are things we probably should be doing, but can’t. We need to prioritize.”

The question of how the district can expect schools to accomplish a new plan came up during a short question-and-answer period after Byrd-Bennett’s speech.

The plan, for instance, states that CPS will “establish a universal standard for a positive learning climate in every school.” One way this will be done, according to the plan, is by expanding social-emotional learning.

A woman in the audience noted that principals often are forced to make a trade-off between arts, social-emotional learning and academics.

Byrd-Bennett’s reply was the only time during the announcement that she acknowledged the district’s budget situation. “There needs to be a redirection of resources,” she said. “We are in a billion-dollar deficit.”

Yet she noted that “the non-academic [learning] is critical and the earlier we start the better.”

Budget questions

Schools will receive $4,429 for every kindergarten through 3rd-grader, $4,140 for every 4th through 8th-grader and $5,029 for each high school student. But CPS officials have not yet provided more specifics about school budgets.

Some principals, especially in neighborhood schools, report that they are grappling with cuts.

Inequities among different types of schools are almost certain to emerge, given how the new budgeting practice is set up: CPS will still award extra positions to magnet schools, selective schools and for specialty programs outside of its per-pupil funding plan.

Only the money that the district spends on regular classroom teachers, administrators and aides is being given on a per-pupil basis. Also, schools will still receive federal and state money, as well as money for special education, based on the existing formula.

CPS officials have said they are trying to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible and that they aren’t not increasing class sizes as a matter of policy.

But principals, faced with hard choices and given broader spending discretion, can make the decision to increase class sizes in order to pay for something else—perhaps an extra aide or to help cover the cost of an after-school program.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was quick to point out the irony in laying out a plan filled with what schools need to do, while at the same time cutting school budgets.

“Our school communities do not lack inspiration, they lack revenue.  It doesn’t matter what new initiatives CPS concocts from year to year if it has no way to appropriately fund them (i.e., the longer school day). Chicago has to break its addiction to tax-breaks and find ways to generate revenue for our schools,” Lewis said in a statement.

Meanwhile, principals were trying to figure out how to do all that is expected with less money. One principal, whose enrollment is staying the same, but he is losing $1 million, says he will cut one and half teacher positions and some aides. Another principal got the same amount of money, despite a projected increase in enrollment. He says he has yet to decide how he will organize the school. He says he thinking of allowing his primary class sizes, now at 24, grow to 28 students.