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CPS, charter operators lock horns over funding formula

Sun-Times file photo /Mitchell Armentrout

Chicago Public Schools leaders are withholding millions of dollars from city charter school operators as the district seeks more leeway in the number of dollars they’re required to set aside for the privately managed, publicly funded schools.

After a dozen charter school administrators and families lined up for public comment at the Board of Education’s monthly meeting on Wednesday to decry what they deem a devastating $50 million cut that could impact the roughly 57,000 students at Chicago’s 119 charters, board members approved a resolution calling for “an equitable, alternative funding formula.”

Operators represented by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools said they were blindsided to receive letters from the district earlier this month saying their fourth-quarter payments would be withheld until an agreement was reached on a revised funding model for next school year.

Illinois’ new school funding formula passed in Springfield in 2017 is credited with greatly improving the perennially cash-strapped CPS’ financial footing. It also resulted in a windfall for charters, requiring districts to provide between 97 and 103 percent of per-capita tuition to charters, up from the 75 to 125 percent range previously required amount of expenses divided by student population.

“The impact this unnecessary funding cut will have on charter school students cannot be overstated,” INCS board member Rhonda Hopps told board members, reading from a letter signed by dozens of city charter leaders. “By reducing charter school fourth quarter payments by up to 40 percent, the district is threatening the academic achievement of students across the city.”

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said it was a “mischaracterization” to label the withheld funds as cuts, saying the district was required to prorate recent charter tuition payments to comply with state law.

“We want to restore the additional funds,” Jackson said, “but legally, the same statute that they’re fighting for precludes us from doing that.”

Jackson said the current funding model “does not allow CPS to ensure that charter schools receive the funding aligned to their actual needs of students.

“This is very serious. We understand the consequences [of withholding the money], but we also hope that serves as a motivator for both of us to get this done,” she said. “We believe we are very close to a resolution.”

The charters say the district is insisting on “a complete rollback of the funding level set in the 2017 funding reform we all supported.”

Charter operators have been negotiating with the district since last year to hammer out an agreement over how CPS tallies up its payments. Any change to the formula would require a change to state law.