There’s not much sugarcoating to be done regarding the news that Chicago Public Schools could experience another sharp decline in enrollment this fall.
The number of students — at 378,000 a decade ago and 329,000 last year — could drop to below 300,000 in the new school year, according to estimates from DataMade, a consulting agency that focuses on using data to solve civic problems.
By 2025, enrollment could decline even more to 262,000, as WBEZ’s Sarah Karp pointed out in an Aug. 12 story on DataMade’s sobering estimates.
All this is troubling news for public education in Chicago. The challenge is clear: Building public confidence in a school system that, year after year, loses thousands of students.
To be sure, those estimates are the worst-case scenario. CPS officials said they do not expect a major drop in enrollment.
But the estimates are yet another stark reminder of the rapid pace of enrollment losses — due largely, as DataMade researchers point out, to a decline in Hispanic birth rates and the well-documented flight of Black families leaving the city because of violence, rising housing costs, lack of job opportunities and other ills.
No one can ignore, as well, the fact that some families have simply given up. They’ve lost confidence in the public school system — in no small part because of labor strife between City Hall and the Chicago Teachers Union, as one acquaintance of ours who reluctantly opted for a private school for their child explained to us recently.
Who knows how much of the enrollment loss is due to parents simply throwing up their hands and deciding to walk away?
Researchers told WBEZ there’s a silver lining to the news: Because state and local property taxes are relatively stable, CPS — if enrollment does decline — will be able to spread its revenue among fewer students.
That silver lining only stretches so far, though. For one, CPS is set to lose $30 million in state funding next year. And the district operates on a per-pupil budgeting system, in which schools that lose students also lose money, no matter how much revenue the district takes in. It’s time to rethink — perhaps scrap? —that system, so that schools can keep their teachers, lower class sizes and develop programs and curricula that will better serve their students — and perhaps attract new ones.
With the first day of school fast approaching next Monday, we hope those worst-case estimates turn out to be wrong.
That would be the best silver lining.
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