Editorial: Chicago Public Schools robs Peter to pay Paul to pursue an unaffordable Brandon Johnson vision

Chicago Public Schools finally has released its school-by-school budgets for next year. The system conveniently waited until the chance of Springfield intervening in its fiscal affairs was over.

The budget document released Tuesday provides information on specific staff allocated to each school. But it’s frustratingly difficult to ascertain which schools are winning and which are losing money as CPS fundamentally changes how it apportions funds.

The budget also doesn’t provide current staffing to allow comparisons. It’s no use going to last year’s budget either, since school-by-school decisions were framed then in terms of dollars rather than staff.

CPS brass say that’s basically by design. This budget represents a reset, a whole new way of running the system. From their point of view, there’s little point in these comparisons. This is Year 1, folks.

Except, of course, in real life things don’t work that way. Parents with kids in second grade or seventh grade or sophomore year want to know how their schools are benefiting — or being shortchanged.

The big new CPS idea is that, instead of allocating money mainly by how many students attend a school, budgeteers have established a baseline in terms of the minimal staff each school should have regardless of how many kids it serves.

So, more than usual, there are winners and losers, given that the overall pot of money isn’t increasing much. Critics point to the example of Douglass High School in Austin on the West Side. That high school currently serves a total of 35 — no, that’s not a typo — students. Under the new budget, Douglass is adding nine positions next year to bring its staff to 32 from 23, according to Chalkbeat. If the student population doesn’t increase next year, there will be nearly as many workers as students in that school.

“We’re dealing with some longer-term structural issues,” CPS Chief Budget Officer Michael Sitkowski said to us, adding that Douglass needs a budget that adequately serves the few students who are there.

Such are the quandaries when you’re budgeting for a school system built to educate far more students than actually walk through its doors.

Under the old budgeting system, school budgets depended mainly, but not entirely, on enrollment. That’s an understandable way to divvy up resources, but as parts of the city lost population over the past decade and many schools continued operating at well below 50% of their capacity, those sparsely attended schools lost teachers and other staff for budgetary reasons. As a result of those losses, they weren’t able to offer arts classes and other programs to augment basic academics, which made them even less desirable choices for the dwindling number of school-age parents in their areas.

CPS’ solution to this problem has been to establish a minimum standard for each school no matter how few students go there. There will be a principal, assistant principal, clerk, counselor, teachers for each grade and so forth.

To ensure these minimally attended schools have this baseline level of support means that a large number of better-functioning schools are losing resources. Which schools? That’s not easy to determine. Education reporters did their best. Chalkbeat reported that at least 150 schools will lose staff positions. The Chicago Tribune reported that LaSalle Language Academy, a magnet school on the Near North Side, is losing seven of eight dual-language teachers. This at a language academy! That information was according to a LaSalle parent who spoke at a Chicago Board of Education hearing and said, rightly, “To me, (an) 88% (loss) is disproportionate.”

Disproportionate is an appropriate term given the nature of these latest Chicago schooling debates. Mayor Brandon Johnson convinced Senate President Don Harmon late last week not to allow a vote on a House-passed bill that would have prevented such “disproportionate” budget cuts at schools progressives like Johnson don’t favor. Johnson promised Harmon there would be no such reductions to selective-enrollment schools. His letter gave no such assurances for magnet schools like LaSalle.

That brings us to the role of Johnson, the former Chicago Teachers Union lobbyist who now runs the city. This budget begins the process of carrying out Johnson’s (and CTU’s) vision for Chicago public education in which propping up unpopular neighborhood schools takes precedence over supporting popular alternatives such as magnet and charter schools. Without a massive influx of revenue from the state, for which Johnson and CTU unsuccessfully lobbied in Springfield, schools such as LaSalle will continue to pay the price to pursue this vision.

Sure, Johnson may say otherwise. It doesn’t change the reality.

In that direction lies eventual CPS failure. Adding nine more staffers at Douglass is highly unlikely to attract enough new students to make that investment worthwhile. Meanwhile, with a system facing a fiscal 2026 budget gap expected to well exceed $700 million, continuing to pursue this vision will mean the schools that are attractive options will continue to lose out in order to support the unattractive options. Eventually, those schools that parents currently find desirable will lose their luster as well. And when that happens, we’ll see even more flight to the suburbs or families leaving the Chicago area entirely.

Don’t believe for a second that many Chicago parents of babies and toddlers aren’t watching what’s happening now with a great deal of trepidation. In a few years, they will have to decide whether to give Chicago Public Schools a try or just throw up their hands and move out of the city. While CTU plots with Johnson to preserve as many teaching jobs as possible by propping up half-empty (or worse) schools, their mutual maneuvers could simply convince parents of tomorrow’s would-be CPS students to pull up stakes. Then the continued declines in CPS enrollment eventually will give Johnson (or whoever sits on the fifth floor after him) no choice but to close schools and cut jobs.

Johnson talks a lot about redressing past inequities that he asserts are the reason for the failure of so many neighborhood schools. We’re more concerned about the future than the past. And we’re not confident this mayor understands what he’s risking by penalizing schools that parents actually want their kids to attend. At some point, it will be too late.

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