A new public schools CEO, recently appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, joined the Chicago Public Schools at the end of September. Everyone agrees that Pedro Martinez, formerly the superintendent of the public schools in San Antonio, faces huge challenges.
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.”
How serious is the problem of population loss and neighborhood and school enrollment decline in Chicago? Here in a report from earlier last week is WBEZ’s Sarah Karp: “Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools dropped dramatically again this fall as the pandemic appears to be exacerbating a decade-long slide. District-run schools are down about 10,000 students compared to last fall…. Total enrollment is expected to be less than 330,000…. Last year’s total was 341,000—down 14,500 from the year before the pandemic began. The school district may no longer be the third largest in the country… Over the last decade, CPS’ enrollment has dropped by at least 74,000 students… It has… been well-documented that Black families are leaving the city. Some are seeking safer communities and more opportunity. Some are migrating to Southern states. For years there’s been a growing number of majority Black schools with tiny student populations. This year, that number grew by 11%. These schools, which have less than 250 students, include 12 neighborhood high schools. Manly High School on the West Side has just 64 students and Hirsch on the South Side has just 78. Given the way Chicago Public Schools is structured, it is difficult for these schools to provide comprehensive, robust programming….”
The new CEO, Pedro Martinez has an accounting background, with a certificate from the Broad Superintendents’ Academy, a corporate-reformer program launched by the late Eli Broad, the business tycoon and school-reformer philanthropist. But the most urgent challenge Martinez will face in Chicago is educational. Martinez must staunch the district’s declining enrollment and support positive educational transformation in the schools trapped by student based budgeting in an accelerating cycle of decline. After the disastrous experiment with 50 school closures of so-called underutilized schools in 2013, the school district has instituted a moratorium on more school closures for now. Martinez’s great challenge will be to make the city’s public schools that anchor the city’s African American neighborhoods authentically welcoming and to improve the educational experience of these schools’ students.
The district is currently undertaking what must be the first step: looking for students who have fallen away due to fears about the spread of COVID-19. Karp explains: “CPS officials last year attributed a 14,500 student enrollment drop largely to parents choosing not to enroll their children in preschool and kindergarten… Interim Chief Education Officer Maurice Swinney said the school district is calling the parents of children who haven’t turned up. Similarly, district officials are reaching out to older children who were not engaged last year during remote learning and have not returned to buildings. Last year, the school district identified some 18l,000 students who they said were highly disengaged based on their attendance, grades and other risk factors.”
However, a new report from Chalkbeat Chicago has uncovered a much deeper problem at schools whose staffs have been diminished over time as student based budgeting has collapsed programming. The school district has been moving around and laying off the very teachers students depend on for support and encouragement. The ongoing churn of staff at the poorest and smallest schools is further undermining these schools’ viability and leaving students feeling isolated and alone.
Chalkbeat‘s Mai Spoto reports: “Laila McKinney was dreading senior year at Chicago’s King College Prep. Not just because of COVID-19. Not just because last year was disrupted by remote learning. But because the 18-year-old’s long-term dance teacher, someone she considered a cherished mentor, and her journalism teacher wouldn’t be there. The two were among the 562 educators —272 teachers and 290 non-teacher employees—laid off by Chicago Public Schools at the end of last year. The number of layoffs this past spring was the lowest in several years. Still, a Chalkbeat analysis found the layoffs hit small schools in high-poverty areas disproportionately hard. Most schools with clusters of three or more teacher layoffs were shrinking campuses, with at least seven of the 22 schools considered ‘underutilized’ by the district…. At least two schools, King and Christian Fenger Academy, laid off 15% of their staff, though Fenger was among the few schools on the list that has gained enrollment over the past two years and planned to add staff this year… Chicago’s teacher layoff numbers are under particular scrutiny this fall for two reasons. Advocates and the Chicago Teachers Union say the district should have used federal pandemic relief money to prevent the layoffs. They asserted the layoffs take a toll on school programming, resources, and communities, making it difficult to recruit new students when enrollment starts to fall.”
Spoto continues: “Christian Fenger Academy laid off five of its 29 teachers in spring. Among those laid off was Xochitl Infante, who taught social studies and other subjects at the school for more than a decade… Infante was not rehired for another full-time teaching job before the fall started but will stay with the district this year and is currently categorized as a reassigned teacher. At Fenger, she was the school’s only Embarc teacher. Embarc is a district-wide three year program that connects high schoolers from low-income families to community-based opportunities and provides college and career readiness training… After Infante left Fenger, a new teacher took her place to close out the (three-year) sequence. But the program is not supposed to be implemented that way, Infante said, noting that long-term teacher-student relationships are Embarc’s foundation. The cut has happened before: Her first Embarc group saw the school discontinue the program for their junior year. It was later reinstated amid popular student demand. Senior Taqueria Halsey credits the program—specifically Infante’s teaching—for strengthening her personal relationships and for teaching her how to assert herself… ‘With her not being here, my senior year is going to be hard… She was almost the only one that followed us. It’s going to be hard going back to new teachers.'”
It seems obvious that Pedro Martinez must focus on building community, strengthening academic programming, and supporting students’ social and emotional well-being across Chicago’s poorest schools, many diminished over time by student based budgeting. I hope Martinez will invest COVID relief dollars to rebuild stable educational communities in the schools made vulnerable by dropping enrollment and student based budgeting. Such investments define the very basic mission of every public school district.