Chicago Public School students head to class. Photo Credit: Huffington Post

Chicago Public School students head to class. Photo Credit: Huffington Post

According to the Mayor and CPS officials, Chicago Public School students have been making tremendous progress in spite of school closings and budget cuts. But as those students prepare to return to school on Sept. 9, they will feel the impact of the $500 million teacher pension crisis in the classroom. While most would agree schools are built for the children inside them, increasingly those children are losing to factors outside of the school. Combine that $500 million deficit with the gridlock in Springfield, and the trip back to school will be a difficult journey for Black Chicago Public School students and their parents.

To understand the impacts of a $500 million shortfall, it is important to understand how we got here.  Currently, Chicago is the only school district in the state of Illinois

that must fund its own teachers’ pensions. 

“This budget reflects the reality of where we are today: facing a squeeze from both ends, in which CPS is receiving less state funding to pay our bills even as our pension obligations swell to nearly $700 million this year,” new CPS Chief Forrest Claypool stated.  Claypool has asked the Illinois General Assembly to resolve that by having the state of Illinois cover Chicago teacher pension costs as well. 

“We look forward to continuing to work with our leaders in Springfield to prioritize education funding reform and finally end the inequity that requires Chicago alone to take scarce dollars from the classroom to pay for teacher pensions,” Claypool said in a press release.

Democrats have indicated that they are willing to assist CPS, but Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has made clear he will not support without passing his “Turnaround Agenda.” 

“For Chicago to get what it wants, Illinois must get what it needs,” Rauner told a skeptical city council in a July address to the City’s governing body. 

With little to no progress in Springfield, and little expectation of any movement in the Rauner-Madigan faceoff for the near future, it appears that CPS students will return to school with far fewer resources than last year—$68 million fewer to be exact. But what does that mean exactly for students?

It means 1500 layoffs district wide. Those layoffs will include 479 schoolteachers, 866 in-school support staff, and 146 citywide employees.  According to CPS, those cuts will impact less than two percent of teachers citywide, including 204 high school teachers and 275 elementary school teachers.  While that number may seem nominal, it means direct impact to the lives of students, particularly on the south and west sides of Chicago. 

Not only does it mean more students per classroom, it also means less support for those teachers who will be operating with increased class sizes, which are predicted to grow to nearly 40 students per classroom.

The impact of increased classroom size is compounded when special needs are factored in.  According to a Catalyst Chicago report, specialty schools for high-needs students lost on average 16.8 percent of their staffing since the start of last school year — significantly higher than the average 1.6-percent staffing reduction that other district-run schools saw.

Upon further analysis, Catalyst Chicago concludes, schools with high concentrations of African-American students and students in poverty made up a large number of the schools hardest hit by staffing loses, again reflecting enrollment trends. Among those same 75 schools, more than half were schools where 95 percent or more of the student population were black or low-income. Essentially, as the city continues to grow, cuts to the budget are coming disproportionately out of Black schools that arguably need the most resources. 

In addition to the fact that cuts to services are disproportionately affecting Black and special needs students, the school day will shift anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. In the case of elementary schools, students may begin as early as 7:45am, and in the case of some high schools, start times will begin as late as 9:00am.  According to CPS, the change in start times will save approximately $13.5 million annually.  While the savings will be significant for CPS, they may be passing the cost to parents who will have to make childcare arrangements to accommodate the changes.

Elementary schools students will also take a blow as the 2015–2016 CPS budget removes funding for all elementary school sports programs.  Unlike the cuts to special services, the removal of elementary school sports is not disproportionate to schools that are predominately Black, because they were removed from all elementary school programs. CPS maintains that they are equitable and fair across the board, which appears to be the case with elementary school sports.  It is important to note that CPS did not ban elementary sports totally, but required the schools to raise their own funds to support their teams.

Critics point to the fact that the more affluent CPS schools on the North and southwest sides have greater fundraising ability to support their athletic programs, while predominately Black schools struggle to find the additional resources like basic supplies and school books.  Additionally, with cuts to music and arts programs as well, many are Blacks are concerned that Black children will be left without the necessary programs to keep students engaged and well rounded.

The 2015–2016 school year for CPS is shaping up to be one of the most challenging years ever.  With a $1.1 billion structural deficit and no relief from Springfield anticipated in the near future, the back-to-school season is going to be a costly issue for parents and students alike.  For parents it will be everything from adjusting work schedules, paying for afterschool activities, and the massive property tax hike which appears inevitable. For kids it will be adjusting to larger classrooms with fewer teachers, resources, and extracurricular activities.  Next week will definitely be back to school week, but with all of the cuts, there will be fewer familiar faces and activities for Black students.

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