Here are 5 things to watch in the CPS year ahead

Chicago Public Schools open Monday with a new mayor and a school board who want to shake up how the school district is run.

SHARE Here are 5 things to watch in the CPS year ahead
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez Mayor Brandon Johnson Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School West Side Chicago

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez gives a thumbs up while Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson stands beside him during a back-to-school event at Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School on the West Side on Wednesday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Advice, resources, and reflections on back-to-school season for Chicago's students, families, and educators.

Chicago Public Schools head into a new school year Monday with a new mayor and a school board who have big ideas for changing the school district and a short time to make an impact. In 16 months, they will cede some control as Chicago begins transitioning to an elected school board.

For now, Mayor Brandon Johnson appears to be sticking with Pedro Martinez as CPS CEO, who has a contract until 2026. In the past, new mayors have picked their own CEO, but Johnson may not want to cause instability after a decade in which the district churned through five different CEOs.

But Martinez and senior staff are still adjusting to Johnson and the new board, which have already started to challenge the status quo. This is coming into play in planning for facilities, how it tries to make up for pandemic learning loss and in the development of the next contract with the Chicago Teachers Union.

Here’s where the new mayor and his board could make a difference this year, and other issues WBEZ will be watching.

CPS buildings

Some of the most vexing questions facing the board and the district revolve around facilities: How many schools does the district need given declining enrollment, and how many can it afford? What should happen to schools with a lot of unused space? How can the district ensure all students have access to a quality, fully funded school? What is the role of publicly funded, privately managed charter schools?

Board of Education members will ponder these questions as part of the development of a 10-year master facilities plan, which state law requires must be completed by the end of this year. Johnson and his board oppose closing schools and, in the past, school closings have left vacant buildings behind and contributed to neighborhood population loss.

Yet school district leaders have huge facilities problems. The district’s enrollment dropped by 81,000 students in the last decade, and 56% of its 535 district-run schools are considered underutilized. The average building is over 83 years old, and they say there’s more than $3 billion in critical repairs needed. Martinez has said modernizing schools could cost more than $10 billion. The school district also has to decide how much new construction to do, including whether to move forward with controversial plans for a Near South Side high school. Meanwhile, there’s a movement to get CPS to create some “green schools” focused on environmental sustainability.

Learning loss

Schools are still trying to help students recover from learning loss from the pandemic. Official 2023 state test results have yet to be released, but Martinez said he is happy with the ground being made up in English and language arts, but in math, students continue to be behind where they were before the pandemic.

The school district is pushing academic achievement in two particular ways. It is spending about $228 million of its federal COVID relief dollars on instructional coaches, professional development and tutors for struggling students as well as a number of social emotional supports.

It is also doubling down on the idea that a key to improving outcomes is making sure all students have access to high-quality lessons. Three years ago, the district launched Skyline, vetted curriculum packages in every subject and grade. Schools must use that curriculum or prove what they are using is high quality. School district officials report an increasing number of schools are using Skyline curricula.

This drive to increase academic performance comes as the district grapples with how to measure performance and how to judge schools. CPS has not rated schools since 2019. The old ratings system of 1-plus down to 3 was seen as punitive. The board has already committed to developing a new accountability system that downplays test scores and does not offer a summative rating. This board will be responsible for hashing out the details of that new system, which is supposed to be ready by next year.

New teachers contract

Believe it or not, the teachers contract created during the 2019 strike expires in June 2024. Upcoming negotiations are expected to be entirely different than in the past. The mayor, a former CTU organizer and teacher, is a product of the CTU, and many board members come from organizations aligned with the union.

The union also has new negotiating powers. In 2021, the CTU successfully pushed legislation restoring their right to bargain over issues such as class size, adequate support staff and the outsourcing of school services. Before that, negotiations on these issues were at the discretion of the Board of Education. The CTU had to strike or threaten a strike to force these issues on the table.

CTU President Stacy Davis Gates expects collaboration to be key in these contract negotiations. In addition to having members produce a list of demands, she would also like to bring together the union, the district, and parent and student groups to publicly discuss their vision for the district and how that can be expressed in a contract.

Budget woes

The board also will have to confront budget realities and may change the way schools are funded entirely.

The school system has been in good financial health largely because of an infusion of $2.8 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money. But that money runs out in 2025. The school district already predicts it will face a deficit of about $628 million in 2025. The board will have to confront staff layoffs, which it will likely be loath to do.

Also, the school district has been moving away from student-based budgeting, which provides a stipend to schools for each student enrolled. This is a market-based approach to education that many see as undermining schools that are already struggling with low enrollment and other issues. The school board may try moving to an approach that sets targets for what they consider a quality education in areas such as class size and staffing levels. Then, CPS would fund schools based on how close they are to those targets.

Privatization

Johnson and many on his school board are fundamentally opposed to privatization in a public school system. There are two ways this will come into play this school year.

The Chicago Board of Education authorizes the opening of charter schools and decides if they can continue operating based on how they perform. Several charter schools are up for renewal, including some of Noble Charter Schools’ campuses, which are part of the largest charter school network in the city.

The board likely won’t move to close charters, but look for it to try to put more accountability parameters on them and to ask a lot of questions about their practices. About 56,000 students, or 17% of CPS’s students, attend charter or other privately run but publicly funded schools. At the same time, CPS is appealing a decision by a judge that a school closing moratorium applies to charter schools. The main power CPS has over these schools is the threat to revoke their operating charter.

Also, in June 2024, the $120 million annual CPS contract with Aramark to manage custodial services will expire. This contract has been highly controversial since it began about a decade ago. Schools have complained they aren’t getting sufficiently cleaned, and some custodians have said they don’t get needed supplies. But if the board wants to shift custodial management services back in-house, it will have to direct the district to start the process soon.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ.

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