State taxpayers will be paying for CPS’ underutilized schools

State taxpayers will be paying for CPS’ underutilized schools

Under Illinois’ new education funding formula, the wildly mismanaged Chicago school district won’t lose a dime in state funding, no matter how many students it loses.

Illinois’ new education funding formula signed into law in August gave the Chicago Public Schools everything it wanted, and more. CPS got to keep its old subsidies, it got the state to pay for its pension costs and it got permission to raise property taxes yet again.

And it got a new education funding formula that was written with a combination of rules that benefit CPS more than most other districts. It was a full-fledged  bailout. And as a result, CPS is expected to get $450 million in additional funding next year.

It’s easy to see how some of those bailout elements are playing out by looking at CPS’ annual enrollment. The new formula forces state taxpayers to pay for CPS’ inefficient and underutilized schools.

CPS is shrinking. Its student enrollment is projected to fall by another 8,000 this year, according to the Chicago Tribune. That’s on top of last year’s loss of nearly 11,000 students.

In fact, CPS’ student enrollment fell 13 percent between its last peak in 2002 and 2016 – a loss of over 57,000 students. And with the city’s overall population declining as well, there is no reason to believe the loss of students won’t continue.

A decline in the number of students should logically result in a smaller amount of total state aid for the district. But thanks to the state’s new education funding formula, CPS won’t lose a dime in state funding, no matter how many students it loses.

That’s because of the “hold harmless” rule in the new funding formula that says no district can ever get less money from the state than it did the year before.

Yes, there are many school districts that will benefit from this rule, but CPS is one of the major beneficiaries simply because of its massive size. That means millions of dollars that could have been distributed to needy, growing school districts, will stay in CPS.

As a result, CPS gets propped up, allowing the district to avoid the reforms it should be making.

School consolidation is one reform CPS officials have avoided. They use state dollars to keep schools open when they should be shut down due to a lack of students.

An Oct. 6 Chicago Tribune editorial highlighted how widespread the issue of empty seats in CPS schools is.

A 2013 school closings commission concluded that 330 schools in Chicago – more than half – were underutilized. And 140 schools were found to be less than half full.

In the same year, the district closed or consolidated 50 schools. The resulting backlash resulted in a moratorium that prevented additional schools from being closed through 2018.

The underutilization problem has only grown worse since then. CPS has lost at least 20,000 students since 2013. And as of 2015, 50 CPS high schools were considered underutilized, with nearly three dozen of them less than half full.

With the school-closing moratorium set to expire in 2018, CPS officials should be looking for ways to combine and close the most underutilized schools – while also focusing on minimizing the disruption to students and parents.

But there is little chance district or city officials will do that. With so much new state funding rolling in, they’ll have no reason to endure the wrath of Chicagoans by making necessary school closures.

So the moratorium will continue, unofficially. And state taxpayers will effectively pay for CPS to keep its underutilized and inefficient schools open.

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