Over the last two decades, Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, has lost half of its Black teachers. The percentage has fallen from 41 percent to 21 percent—a loss of more than 5,000 Black educators—with some of the direct causes being decades of school closings, terminations in Black and Brown schools as a result of turnarounds, and annual layoffs targeting high-need schools with predominantly Black student populations and declining enrollment.
In a district that is more than one-third African-American, the presence of Black teachers is needed to improve educational outcomes for Black students, and the layoffs CPS has imposed over the last decade have clearly had a negative impact on many school communities. Many CPS students of color today will never have a single Black teacher during their time in public school, despite extensive research showing that both Black and white students benefit from having Black teachers.
The decline of Black teachers has been accelerated by the district’s chief policies of the last decade: student based-budgeting (SBB) and School Quality Ratings Policy (SQRP). Both SBB and SQRP have caused an enrollment death spiral in public schools as funding and students flowed to better-resourced schools in neighborhoods experiencing increases in population and housing costs.
Student-based budgeting: the real Hunger Games
Picture every student with a dollar amount floating over their head, and now imagine every school competing to enroll that student so the school can add that student’s dollars to its budget. That’s the crux of SBB.
According to SBB boosters, this approach ensures equal spending per student and gives schools more autonomy over the budgeting process. But in reality, SBB is grossly unfair. The system assigns the same funding to each student regardless of the student’s needs, and this approach has had a disastrous impact on neighborhood schools, especially on predominantly Black schools on the South and West sides of Chicago.
Schools that are already struggling with inadequate resources and/or serve a large number of students coming from marginalized communities are hit hardest by SBB funding. Every time a student leaves the school, the school has even fewer resources to accommodate the students who remain.
On the other hand, the schools that are considered “desirable” have an incentive to pack in as many students as possible, so they can add dollars to their budgets—but without regard to overcrowded classrooms and other sub-optimal learning outcomes.
Schools, not soda
In 2013, CPS closed 50 schools, primarily on the South and West sides, citing low enrollment and poor performance as justifications. The following year, CPS implemented SBB—a school budget system that provides dollars instead of positions to schools, with the funding distributed on a per-pupil basis.
SBB’s proponents—such as school privatizers and their civic allies—supported the strangulation of struggling schools. After all, they reasoned, what could be better than students exercising consumer choice, “voting with their feet,” and leaving behind their crumbling, low-resource schools?
But schools aren’t consumed like cans of soda. SBB punishes a neighborhood school for the exodus of families from the area, even if that exodus is the result of city policies—which, like CPS policies, are set by the mayor—that shut down public housing, place a charter school nearby, or promote gentrification that makes housing unaffordable.
SBB and other supposed accountability programs like the School Quality Rating Program (SQRP) create instability and unpredictability for schools and parents. Rather than continue with the same doomed system, CPS should move to a more equitable way of resourcing schools.
SQRP: racist, punitive and superficial
The School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP) is a CPS rating system that is supposed to provide parents with information about their child’s school. SQRP, however, fails to live up to its promise. SQRP relies heavily on standardized test scores, which are themselves riddled with racial bias. These tests don’t measure student ability, but rather the unequal access to quality schools with adequate resources. As a result, schools with white middle-class and upper-class students tend to receive higher ratings. These schools also tend to hire and retain white teachers. Meanwhile, segregated schools that serve large numbers of low-income students tend to receive lower ratings. So SQRP ratings tell us what we’ve already known for 50 years: students in better resourced schools do better on tests than schools with inadequate resources.
Such a rating system does not reflect what makes a good school, and it creates all kinds of negative incentives to narrow curricula and “teach to the test”, deny students broad and rich educational experiences, and close schools based on unhelpful performance measures.
What’s the alternative?
CPS should provide information that is truly useful to parents, such as summaries of academic and curricular programming, extracurricular activities, after-school programs, STLS supports, and other school offerings that enrich students’ lives. Neither New York nor Los Angeles public schools use a single summative rating, and many school districts share information about a variety of activities and performance indicators. The Illinois State Board of Education already produces a report card for every school in Chicago. If the point is to improve school performance, there are better approaches than SQRP so that schools that serve low-income students aren’t penalized. Such an approach requires regular feedback and opportunities to grow by building capacity within schools rather than face regular punishment through a summative rating.
The Chicago Teachers Union proposes that CPS abolish SQRP and reject any rating system that evaluates schools based on test scores, attendance, or other measures that are to a large degree measures of the socioeconomic level of the students rather than the quality of the school. Instead, the CTU proposes that CPS assess schools based on the variety of programs offered at the school and according to the day-to-day needs of the students and staff.