Another school year, another year of cuts. When does it end? I’m in my ninth year serving as the teacher-librarian at Nixon Elementary in Hermosa, a neighborhood whose name means “beautiful.” Hermosa is beautiful. Nixon is beautiful. It’s a school community that has a lot of heart and history. It’s also a school community that’s been slowly taken apart, bit by bit, over the years by CPS through student-based budgeting.
Since I began teaching at Nixon, our enrollment has dropped substantially due to a variety of factors. None of these factors involve my students – both current and former – who deserve nothing less than the resources they need to reach their full potential. But how can my students reach their full potential without the full support of their own school district?
In recent years, many if not most of the students Nixon has welcomed have recently arrived in America from other countries. Many have a limited grasp of English upon arrival. Yet they’re often forced to take the same high-stakes tests that students in more resourceful school communities take. Not only are my students challenged to perform similarly as students whose first language is English, they’re also pushed to perform well on tests by a school district that has continually slashed our budget, year after year.
CPS picks and chooses where it wants to spend its money. This includes roughly $2 billion (yes, $2 billion with a “b”) in federal funding this district received to avoid the very cuts outlined in Nixon’s budget. I don’t think I sound like a conspiracy theorist in saying that there’s a reason that Bell Elementary, whose enrollment fell 8% between 2020 and 2021, received a higher budget this year than last. The poverty rate at Bell is 13%. Nixon’s poverty rate is 95%. This city knows that parents with the most resources often have the loudest voices. That means that CPS has no qualms cutting the budgets of schools attended mostly by Black and Brown children – whose parent voices often go unheard.
No school – regardless of poverty rate – should be losing money at this time. We have all endured significant trauma throughout the pandemic. I have students who have lost parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents to COVID-19. I have colleagues who have lost family members, including parents, to COVID-19 as well. We need more resources, not fewer, to recover from the toll that this virus has taken on our school community and society as a whole. Yet CPS expects it to be business as usual with fewer resources – including fewer staff members – and still make the gains that the district has outlined.
The cycle begins when the district slashes resources that schools need to thrive, which includes having enough adults to supervise, teach and love children. Then, enrollment drops, because when families have a choice between a school with few resources and another with many, why wouldn’t they choose the one with more to offer? Then, CPS tests – a lot – to “rate” schools based almost exclusively on those test scores, then assigns a color.
The “color” and rating assigned to Nixon is not indicative of the type of school community that we are, which is one with heart, and one with students who show up to school every day because they want to learn. Since starting at Nixon, there has only been one year I can recall that our budget wasn’t cut. It was an election year, and Chicago being Chicago, the money was found to not cut school budgets that particular year.
Had the city slashed our budget back in 2015, my position would have been eliminated and the library I’ve spent the last nine years fundraising and cultivating wouldn’t be in use anymore.
Since that year, I’ve fundraised over $200,000 to completely remodel and revamp our library into a 21st century space in which children feel seen, heard and loved. That’s $200,000 that CPS had no part in, because the district refuses to fully fund our schools.
After analyzing it all, I can only conclude that these budgets are simply nonsensical. There’s no rhyme or reason to them. But, this is what I do know: The federal government gave CPS a substantial amount of funding to avoid the very cuts being proposed throughout our network, Network 4. And here’s one thing CPS CEO Pedro Martinez failed to mention in his speech before the Board recommending the passage of said budget: A very modest budget increase is actually a cut when you account for the contractually obligated raises teachers and support staff are due this upcoming fall. So several schools in Network 4 that “gained” money actually lost funding.
Who were the “winners” in terms of school budgets? I hate even using that term, because all schools should be funded. Period. This is a district that can afford $135 million for a new curriculum that schools aren’t even required to implement. It’s also a district that received substantial funding to offset the very cuts outlined in these budgets.
CEO Martinez likes to say that we can’t use the $2 billion on “additional positions” or “positions that could be cut later.” But how are these positions additional or extra when they’re already there and in their plans to be cut?
Educators are tired of doing more with less. Our students deserve better than this.