Neighborhood Schools Hit By Cuts, Charters Spared

Dollar reductions target traditional Chicago public schools for upcoming year while privately managed learning centers get additional funding.

Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools' Facebook page

Just two miles apart, West Side elementary schools Polaris Charter Academy and Gregory Academy, a neighborhood school, are similar in size and characteristics with each expecting to enroll about six additional students this fall than a year earlier.

Government funding for the schools, however, is heading in different directions: Polaris is scheduled to get an additional $338,000, while Gregory is taking a hit of about $184,000, according to Chicago Public Schools’ proposed budget for the upcoming school year. Both schools are set to receive more than $4 million in CPS funding.

Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, money is supposed to follow students to their schools – institutions with growing numbers of students get more and those with declining populations get less.

However, a Better Government Association analysis of the 2015-2016 school year budget shows a disparity between dollars flowing to charter schools – which are publicly funded but privately managed – and money being cut for traditional schools.

Neighborhood and magnet schools are set to receive significant cuts in areas such as special education and busing, while charter schools are virtually untouched by these reductions, the BGA analysis found.

"We don't want anyone to suffer budget cuts," said Wendy Katten, director of Chicago public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand. "But if there needs to be cuts why aren't they distributed amongst all types of schools?"

Even with proposed reductions, including 1,400 planned layoffs, CPS says it will be $500 million in the red for the coming school year. Financial woes made it necessary to make the cuts proposed for the coming school, district officials say. Those reductions – which represent a decline in spending from last school year’s actual expenditures – aren’t being felt by charter schools, however. In fact, charter schools are seeing more money for special education, the proposed budget shows.

Chicago schools officials note that projected budgets can vary widely from what is eventually spent on schools in a given year due to unforeseen revenue from government grants and other sources. The officials also struggle to explain why charters are being spared drastic cuts seen at traditional educational institutions.

CPS funds charter schools but allows them to be managed by private operators, a system that’s been controversial from the standpoint of transparency and political connections. The Emanuel administration plans to pump almost $640 million into charter and similar privately run public schools this year – roughly $11 million more than last school year – to serve a projected additional 2,700 students.

Meanwhile, neighborhood and magnet schools – which make up the vast majority of CPS – are scheduled to get $2.9 billion, a $146 million reduction compared with what was spent last school year.

That reduction in dollars to neighborhood schools is far greater than a loss of 4,000 students would indicate under the current funding policy. A final budget is expected to be approved by Aug. 26. (Three public hearings are scheduled to be held Tuesday, Aug. 18.)

Gregory Principal Donella Carter questions why her budget is being cut so much, despite projections that she’ll get more students.

Carter said she is still trying to figure out how she will deal with it, but is thinking it might include reducing staff and cutting after-school programs, including sports.

Carter said she is hoping that some other funding will come through. "I am hoping for some good news," she said.

CPS Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro told Board of Education members in July that the formula used to distribute money is complicated and cannot be explained through simple math.

"We have many different models through which we distribute funding to schools," Ostro said.

For years, charter school operators and advocates maintained they were not adequately funded and have successfully pushed CPS to increase their funding.

"We are getting close to parity," Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy said.

But he said that charters still want more money to help pay for facility costs.

Kennedy High School Principal George Szkapiak sees things differently: Charter schools are gaining at the expense of traditional schools, he said.

It is "critically important" to get a handle on how money is being distributed between the different categories of schools, said Szkapiak, who has fought attempts to locate a new charter school near Kennedy on the Southwest Side.

Kennedy is projected to get 46 more students this school year and yet it is budgeted for $15.4 million, a $304,000 cut from last school year.

"What happens when neighborhood schools take cuts? Is education enriched or diminished? It is diminished," he said.