pie being sliced

If Student-Based Budgeting Is the Slicer, We Need a Bigger Pie

Chicago Public Schools recently wrapped up a series of workshops discussing how student-based budgeting works and asking parents, school leaders and community members for their ideas about how to make sure the neediest schools and students get an equitable share of funds.

Critics charge the current budgeting process creates a vicious cycle of disinvestment when already under-resourced schools lose students. A September 2019 study showed that “low-budget” CPS schools are clustered in Black neighborhoods with higher numbers of charter schools (that may be drawing students away from district-run schools). As currently structured, the CPS student-based budgeting process has no built-in avenue to increase funds when a school has small, high-need enrollment. That’s a problem in a system where enrollment is declining, and perhaps most rapidly in Black neighborhoods.

There are some good ideas on the table. In a memo to Mayor Lightfoot, Kids First proposed creating an “equity index” that would use census tract data and other measures to direct funds to schools with the highest concentrations of high-need students, not simply by enrollment numbers. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability thinks CPS could change its school funding formula to work like the state’s new method and send more money to schools with more high-need students.

That could actually also be done by tweaking the current student-based budgeting process to “weight” students with more money when they come with higher needs. Other cities, like Boston, are already doing this.

However, Boston has an important advantage Chicago does not–a more adequate share of state money to fund schools. Until Illinois and the City of Chicago get serious about creating a bigger pie for schools, arguing about how to slice it feels like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Will Our State and City Walk Their Talk on School Funding?

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is giving his budget address tomorrow. Will he fully fund our state’s great new education formula? Longtime state advocates like Advance Illinois say it would take $650 million new state dollars for Illinois to keep its promise to fund schools adequately and equitably within–get this–10 years. (The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability pegs the funds required at an even higher level–$779 million.)

Right now Chicago’s public schools are only getting about two-thirds of the money the state says they need to provide students an adequate education. As much as advocates want to talk about more equitable ways to share out the money we currently have, we can’t talk about real equity until we have a bigger pie to slice. And that means the state must fulfill its promise.

Baking a bigger pie also means the City of Chicago must substantially reduce the amount of property taxes being diverted into tax-increment finance districts (TIFs). TIFs were originally created to spur development in neighborhoods struggling to attract investment. Ironically, in Chicago, TIFs created in downtown and more affluent areas have distributed millions of property tax dollars to wealthy developers.  Those funds could have been used to support schools citywide. Meanwhile the areas where TIFs were supposed to build business continue to struggle. 

While Mayor Lightfoot has taken initial steps toward TIF reform, much more dramatic change is needed.

Sure, let’s keep the pressure on CPS to develop a method of sending resources to schools that ensures the kids who need the most don’t get the least. At the same time, let’s keep pushing for a bigger base of funds to make sure everyone gets what they need, and let’s leave as much power as possible in local hands to decide what to do when hard decisions have to be made.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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